It is two years since I arrived in Portugal. I live smack in the middle of the country, in Tomar, in the central Ribatejo region, which means I can reach most other parts of the country within a couple of hours on the road even if I take only winding secondary routes. So far I have explored only areas south of the line Porto-Vila Nova de Foz Côa and north of the line Lisbon-Évora-Elvas. In the eastern part of this slice of the country, in the Beira Baixa and Alto Alentejo regions, I found “my Portugal.” I am not at all complaining about life in Tomar — yet over time I discovered that visiting the east feels most like “coming home.”
Why is it that “home” begins a good hour east of my actual Tomar home? Twenty-five years of living in the United States are to blame. In New Mexico I found the high desert and in Kansas I enjoyed the tallgrass prairie; both regions taught me how eye-opening and blood-curdling sensational the wide open spaces are, how the emptiness of the land changes all of one’s traditional perspectives, how the necessity of having to travel 40 or 60 miles (either way) to do grocery shopping enriches, yes, the soul if not the mind. This is hard to explain to someone who never traveled in southern Utah or along the West Texas-Mexico border, or east-west on Highway 56 across Kansas or on “the loneliest road” in Nevada; but anyone who did knows exactly what I mean and understands why the experience is unforgettable. This immensity and openness of land cannot be found anywhere in Western Europe. But in the Beira Baixa and the Alto Alentejo I do find similarities to the American West.
Driving east, towards the Portugal-Spain border, the landscape changes from densely grown tree forests on steep hills and from mountainsides cut through by many narrow canyons and valleys to rolling plains and broad-based hills, sprawling tree plantations and grasslands, and fewer but wide river canyons. The distances are growing. The views sometimes reach the horizons. True, my eye meets more towns than wherever in the American West but their appearance on a far-away hilltop, with the walls of their buildings bright-white and their tiled rooftops the sweetest of red hasn’t anything to do with a desert mirage, they’re the bare-naked truth. These towns, whether big or small, are real – they are genuine, authentic if “old-fashioned” appearing communities, but communities nevertheless, where I find people socializing on the corners of narrow streets that are aligned by numerous flower pots all presenting bloom and by wine vines growing on porches. These towns just feel good, for their harmony, their traditions, their old and sometimes ancient history. They offer a safe haven also for children, who are walking home from school and living an undisturbed outdoors life within the city walls. They offer meeting points for groups of men or women or whole families at their street-side cafés and in their coffee shops and informal restaurants, such different places than the food and beverage businesses in America. These are towns with their feet deep in the earth.
This is the Portugal where I feel most at home. Parts of the land resemble areas of New Mexico, especially its north-east corner from Las Vegas north along Interstate 25. Other parts remind me of the tallgrass prairie in Kansas, although most of these grasslands offer many more trees than a Flint Hills rancher would allow on his or her land. And you know what? The cattle clearly enjoy the shade under the Cork oaks or the Holm, Portuguese, Algerian, Pyrenean or Camus oak trees no less than under the often abundant olea europaea evergreen olive trees. I hear there are olive trees 1600 to 2400 years old that still produce fruit good enough to be made into olive oil. The many sheep in this area and the black Iberian pigs feast themselves on the acorns and olives that dropped down; and the acorns are also used to make delicious high-alcohol liquors and sauces. The sales of cork and acorns and olives add to the income of the ranchers, so everyone ends up content and happy. Some ranches are huge, their out-buildings surrounding three-story mansions not unlike the ones you can find deep in western Texas — remember the one filmed for ‘Giant’? With Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean? Many Portuguese ranch houses date back to the mid-1800s; some are even older and were built in 1770 or 1810 by and for families that were noble or on the way to enter nobility. Now, too many ranches are company-owned like most farms and ranches in the Americas.
Have you got it? What I discover in ancient east-central Portugal is something comparable to what I loved so much in the United States: an overwhelming landscape. I also discover there is a border there, between Portugal and Spain, and it is just a 95-minute freeway drive from my Tomar home. Even if this border, being within the European Union, is without official crossings let alone fences or walls, there is a borderline on the map and if you cross from one country to the other you experience a cultural difference not unlike between Holland and Belgium. I loved the American/Mexican borderline, I loved La Frontera and traveled all along the border in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and parts of California. My all-time favorite song is Ry Cooder, Jim Dickinson and John Hiatt’s ‘Borderline’ – I have it on CD performed by scores of artists including Willie Nelson and Harry Dean Stanton, the last one alas deceased and Willie… he will make it past one-hundred, you bet. My favorite movies of all times are ‘Paris Texas’ by Wim Wenders (with Harry Dean Stanton) and ‘Lone Star’ by John Sayles, both dealing with the borderline be it in different ways. And ‘The Wild Bunch’ of course, by Sam Peckinpah…
When traveling in the Beira Baixa and also when in the Alto Alentejo I crossed the border into Spain so far twice. Into Spain’s Extremadura province. The land is what in America would be called “the high plains”; it is wider, rougher, less cultivated and less “well-organized” than in Portugal. This is the land that in ‘My Fair Lady’ was described by Professor Higgins and sung about by Eliza Doolittle, remember? “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain,” and yes, during one of my visits I experienced a torrential rainfall indeed. I visited Alcántara, Albuquerque, Badajoz. These towns are less brilliant than the ones on the Portuguese side of the non-existent wall. In Portugal, most towns look festive because the town people decorate their homes and streets; balconies are full of vines, citrus trees are all over the place, flower pots line even the narrowest of the 17th-century streets and make aimless strolling around a safe pleasure and car traffic all but impossible. Colorful natural beauty can be found in Monsanto, Idanha-a-Velha, Castelo Branco, Portalegre, Estremoz, Marvão, Evoramonte… everywhere. On the contrary, the Spanish towns are rather lackluster, the cafés are simpler, the cuisine is less sophisticated, the old ruins are not cared for much, and even their younger people dress as if living in the 1990s.
Was there always a difference between Spain and Portugal? These two world powers of the past? Just to get an idea I page through ‘Oldest Ally’. This portrait of Salazar’s Portugal in 1960 is a “deep” travel report written by Peter Fryer and Patricia McGowan Pinheiro. Just so you know, “oldest ally” refers to the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance or Aliança Luso-Britânica, also known in Portugal as Aliança Inglesa, ratified at the Treaty of Windsor in… 1386. This is the oldest alliance in the world that is still in force. Historically, Portugal and England have never waged war against each other nor have they participated in wars on opposite sides. England even spearheaded the Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604) on the side of the deposed Portuguese royal house and helped kick out Napoleon’s occupation force out of Portugal in the early 19th century. And today, in 2018, the Portuguese have 250,000 expats studying and working in the (barely) United Kingdom (2½% of their population). While the number of Brexpats, as I call them, living and frequently vacationing in Portugal and especially on its south coast is so high that they are practically forming a plague. Anyway, in 1960 the English authors journeyed by train from France and had of course to cross a large part of Spain before entering Portugal.
From Irún on the French-Spanish border they rode an “old dirty-brown” Spanish train but had the luck to find seats in the bright-aluminum first class passenger wagon attached to the train by Companhia dos Caminhos de Ferro Portugueses. Portuguese laborers going home after making an income in France on second class tickets were allowed to also travel first class, but only if they were “on their best behavior,” said the conductor. They had to keep the carriage clean, refrain from spitting, and not spill food or wine on the floor. They were a happy but subdued bunch, not noisy like the drunken Spaniards in the next wagons who sang bawdy songs and loudly hammered the doors and wooden seats. “None of these new-fangled Castilian spellings and lispings for us,” wrote a happy Fryer and McGowan, “but the latter-day Latin of Camões, of which he himself wrote: ‘Slightly corrupt, ‘tis still the Roman tongue’.” Luís de Camões (1524-1580) is Portugal’s most celebrated poet, their Shakespeare.
The train journey took the travelers on the gaunt landscape of the Castilian plain across monotonous fields and past poverty-stricken villages. “A brown, bitter semi-desert stretches to the horizon on both sides, with scarcely a tree or a hillock or a wall to ease the eye. In the villages the churches are in decay, the façades crumbling, sockets gaping in the belfries where bells should be swinging. The dingy hovels around them, mud-colored, are crumbling too. Men live in some, animals in others. Often they share the same quarters. … Farm laborers trudge by with their feet bound in dirty rags and thrust into some kind of slippers, so that (the fascist generalissimo) Franco’s law against going barefoot shall be obeyed.” Occasionally the monotony was broken by the soft grey-green of olive trees, and Salamanca’s Catedral nueva reflected the early sun for only a few minutes before they were back in the scrubby, all-but-barren bleakness of the León province. Even the Portuguese workers, who knew about poverty and hardship, were moved by the primitive appearance of Spain’s land and villages.
But then… there was the border and once they crossed the borderline into Portugal the scenery changed and the change was a dramatic one. The land might still be harsh for miles, but the Portuguese peasant- proprietors unlike the landowners of Spain had not fecklessly stripped it of trees and they worked to make a living wherever they could; there were terraces on the steep hillsides, there were wells and pumps and small, elaborately walled fields. Even sheet-size pieces of land were cultivated to grow maize or oats or cabbages; all land was cared for. By their sweat the peasants of the Beiras each year refreshed the land; it showed loving care, like all towns and villages did where each year walls were painted a fresh white and wooden window and door frames were repainted in the brightest of colors. “So much for the legend that the peasant of southern Europe is not industrious,” wrote Fryer and McGowan. It was 1960 and the Castilians, who were just as poor as the Portuguese, appeared not to bother to buy paint and brighten up and clean their domiciles. It was 1960 and the Spaniards did not put vines on pergolas and flowers in pots on the doorsteps like the Portuguese. And, unlike their counterparts in Spain, the railroad stations in Portugal, and the police offices and public lavatories as well, were unexpectedly clean and decorated with colorful earthenware tiles called azulejos which “may at first sight resemble the interior of a Victorian gin palace or theater in England, but look again and you will see that their national motifs save them from garishness. Their very naivety, indeed, is a pleasant change from the advertisements for brassieres and horror films.”
It is 2018. My short visits of the Spanish hinterland were really not unpleasant. Yet I felt a strong positive emotion when returning to Portugal and crossing the borderline formed by the Rio Erges via the splendid 1800 year old Ponte de Romana de Segura. West of the bridge the landscape really changed and I again noticed surprising similarities with north-eastern New Mexico and the Flint Hills. I even detected, near a ranch house, the entrance to what in Kansas would be a tornado cellar. No wonder it felt like coming home.