Brought up in Portugal, when I left aged 13, I vowed to return, but it took 22 years. Money was short but I had a wonderful childhood living in a small village near Cascais. My children too have had a good life here and, educated in state schools, consider themselves ‘half’ Portuguese. We feel privileged to live here.
Some of my Portuguese friends believe the ‘grass is greener abroad’, but I know that although salaries are higher elsewhere, there is more stress from work, society and daily life which is so different to the relaxed Portuguese approach.
Nowadays mostly known for its tourist industry, there are many extraordinary facts about Portugal that you may not know.
To begin with, Portugal is the oldest country in Europe that has, since 1139, retained its original borders. Lisbon is the second oldest European capital after Athens and is four centuries older than Rome, both having been built on seven hills.
Lisbon’s Vasco da Gama Bridge is the longest in Europe (17,185 metres) and is an engineering feat as the engineers were forced to factor in the curvature of the Earth. Having been to school in Lisbon, I love re-visiting the ancient, yet vibrant, and cosmopolitan city with its trams and cultural heritage.
Many foreigners find Portuguese difficult to learn, yet it is the official language in nine countries, spoken in five continents, with 240 million total speakers, making it the world’s eighth most spoken language.
Portugal is a small country but it used to have a large empire, built during the Age of Discoveries in the 15th and 16th centuries. It included Brazil, countries in Africa and Asia discovered following the Portuguese invention of the Caravel sailing ship.
They also created the first nautical maps, the maritime compass, lateen sails, breech canons and Carracks black swords.
The first European slave market was in Lagos, yet Portugal was also the first country to abolish slavery (in 1761) and to abolish the death penalty. Sadly, Portugal lost most of its wealth due to Lisbon’s destruction in the 1755 earthquake and through the loss of its wealthiest colony, Brazil, in 1822.
Did you know that the oldest alliance in the world is between Portugal and England? Signed in 1373, it is still in force today with the two countries supporting each other in times of war.
Portugal is the European country with the highest emigration as a proportion of its population. A 2014 survey indicated that almost 50% of Portuguese nurses left the country during the previous three years.
There was a time, during the 16th century, when all the European Courts had a Portuguese doctor because they were the best! Portuguese physicians discovered the circulation of the blood and were pioneers of tropical medicine.
António Egas Moniz won the 1949 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his leucotomy work and, more recently, laboratories here developed Zebinix, a breakthrough drug for the treatment of epilepsy.
Lisbon’s Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, which is striving to be a world leader in neuroscience and cancer research, was voted in 2012 by The Scientist Magazine as the number one place to work outside the USA.
We do not often hear about Portuguese scientific achievements but they have developed technology that changed the world. I was surprised to learn they invented the Via Verde automatic toll system in 1991 and the first prepaid mobile phone cards; also, the world’s most advanced ATM system, the Multibanco, in 1985, which has 60 different services for paying taxes, bills, buying concert tickets, donating to charity and crediting telephones. It also dispenses cash!
The diverse countryside of the Alentejo has hundreds of cork trees because Portugal provides 50% of the world’s cork demand. In 2018, one lucky producer will see his cork used by the European Space Agency mission in its spacecraft mission to Mars!
The Alentejo also has one of the world’s largest solar energy plants, which is unsurprising as Portugal averages over 300 sunny days a year.
Portugal is ranked 13th in the world for wind power production and the world took notice in May 2016 when for 4.5 days Portugal produced zero emissions energy via wind, solar and hydro-generated electricity, supplying 100% of demand and selling a surplus 20% to Spain. Not bad for one of the poorest countries in the Eurozone.
I love Portugal’s unique cuisine and it has had a great influence all over the world. The Portuguese invented marmalade and introduced chili to India thus being responsible for the existence of curry! They gave tempura to the Japanese and are credited for making tea drinking popular in Britain when Portuguese Catherine of Braganza married King Charles II and made it a fashionable drink.
I was once amazed to find salted codfish (bacalhau) in the market in Swansea, Wales. Typically Portuguese, there are over 1,000 recipes for cooking it.
And did you know that the Portuguese are the only ones known to eat the whole pig? Years ago I embarrassed a young butcher by asking him what ‘Tubaros’ were on the meat counter. They looked like very lean meat and the packaging did not say ‘pigs testicles’, so how was I to know?
Protected by UNESCO, the Douro wine region is the world’s third oldest and worth visiting even if you do not drink wine. Ancient Greece geographer Strabo wrote that the ‘Portuguese’ were drinking wine 2,000 years ago, but it was the 2nd century BC Romans who first made wine on the Douro river banks. Portugal is now ranked 11th wine producer in the world.
Predictably, my children joined the local football club as the Portuguese are passionate about football with whole families attending matches. Did you know that, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, Benfica is the world’s most supported football club?
If you like surfing, Nazaré is the place to catch the biggest waves ever surfed at 33 metres.
For the average Portuguese, daily life can be a struggle and the lack of investment and vision has meant that Portugal is economically poor. However, it is quietly achieving recognition as one of the best holiday destinations and an affordable place to live, recently ranked fifth most peaceful country in the world.
Portugal is an amazing country, full of friendly people, history, culture and fantastic food! The Portuguese are proud of their rich heritage and, despite being disillusioned with prospects for future generations, they make the most of what the country has to offer and so do I.
So now you know!
By Isobel Costa
Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.