Thoughts from Visiting Portugal

Recently I was fortunate enough to visit Portugal. Nicola was taking part in an 8-day horse trek, and I was along for the duration and as part of the “support” crew.

I must admit I did not know what to expect. Having always been a bit of a history buff I knew some Portuguese history. I knew that it had been occupied by Celtic and Iberian tribes who were later subjugated by the Romans. I knew that at one time it had been part of Moorish Spain and had also become an independent state from Spain at a later date.

I knew that in the late 1400s and 1500s, it had been quite a sea power. Navigators such as Vasco De Gama had pioneered a sea route from Europe to India, while Francis Magellan had led an expedition, the first, to circumnavigate the globe. I also knew a little about Portugal’s involvement in the Napoleonic Wars.

However, as far as modern Portugal was concerned, I knew very little. Also, I knew next to nothing about the landscape other than I imagined it would be somewhat Mediterranean in character.

Villages, Cities, Lisbon and Porto

As we did not use a rental car, travelling either by horseback (Nicola), support van (me), trains between major destinations, and either walking, bus, Taxi or Uber in the major cities, we cannot remotely claim that we covered a huge amount of the country.

However, a few things still stood out. Unlike New Zealand, where we all aspire to have our 1/8th-acre section of paradise, Portuguese have gone in the other direction, and for the most part in the cities, people live in apartments. These apartment buildings are generally no more than 5 – 6 stories high. However, what hit me was the sheer amount of public space given over to paved squares, gardens and parks. There was also a very good public transportation network. There was a feeling that more thought and design was put into people walking, people socialising, rather than driving.

The old parts of both the major cities we visited, Lisbon and Porto, were quite spectacular. Beautiful old buildings, narrow cobblestone streets, extensive use of colourful tiles. Quite stunning. As we were there during the main tourist season, there were a lot of people about (Portugal has 12 million visitors a year in a land area a little under a third of New Zealand). Other than the odd choke point; however, all these people did not detract from the experience.

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The Rural Landscape

The rural landscape was, for me, the biggest surprise.

Everywhere there were trees, not something I expected. In the south where we spent most of our time, the landscape was carpeted in Cork Oaks and Pine Nut trees. There were a few mobs of sheep, but overall, not many livestock.

Flying back into New Zealand, it hit me again that so much of our rural farming landscape is a green desert.

In the north, the landscape was a little more familiar, a lot more open fields, but still many more trees.

However, as in much of the world, people are leaving these rural areas and heading to the major cities. Everywhere in the countryside, there are abandoned buildings falling into ruin. We were told by a tourist guide, that some rural villages off any tourist route have simply been abandoned. They are left to fall into decay with the only inhabitants a few elderly with nowhere else to go.

An example of this depopulation was a rural hotel we stayed at for several nights. Our room had once housed one of seven families who used to work on the farm. The owner told me that in those days they had had cattle, sheep, pigs, plus of course the Cork Oaks. Now it is tourists, Cork Oaks and a few sheep. Seasonal labour meets all their needs.

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What Thoughts Did I Bring Home?

It is so easy to come back from anywhere else and wonder, why don’t we do that at home? Often there are many good reasons why we don’t. However, there are two things that stood out for me that we could do better.

First. Our cities sprawl, eating up good food growing land. They are designed around motor vehicles rather than people. We need to think harder about public transport, public spaces and higher density housing.

Second. Trees in the landscape. We could so use more trees in our landscapes, but please not blanket monoculture pine trees, rather riparian plantings, spaced nut-producing or specialty timber trees over pasture, more pockets of preserved native forest.

We can always find ways to do things differently.

Brian Megaw

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