Navigating the World – Portugal Explorers

One of my favorite historical novels is Anya Seton’s Katherine, the story of Katherine Swynford, mistress of John of Gaunt and eventually his third wife. John is the father of Henry Bolingbroke, who took over the throne from the ineffectual Richard II, as Shakespeare so beautifully demonstrated. 220px-Filipa_lencastre

Phillipa tomb

Tomb of Queen Philippa and King Joan in an unusual affectionate pose.

Another child of John of Gaunt, Phillipa, became in her own right one of the most influential monarchs in history when she married Joan III (John) of Portugal. Thought to be too old a bride at 27, Phillipa of Lancaster actually turned a political Anglo-Portuguese alliance into a love match. The king gave up his mistress and devoted himself to his family. Phillipa was well educated herself and ensured that her offspring were similarly schooled. Four sons had significant impact on the history of Portugal, but none more than Infante Henry.

Henry’s 14th-century childhood is illustrated in the lovely children’s book, The Miracle Dogs of Portugal, about the canines famous for their prowess in helping fishermen. They actually herd fish into nets! (The book also mentions that a Portuguese Water Dog lives at the White House, the photogenic “Bo.”)

The Infante Henry grew up believing in the importance of intellectual inquiry in all areas, but particularly in science and navigation.


AlbuQuerque, explorer

IMG_2743Could it be possible to establish a trade route to the Orient? What lay beyond the western shores of Europe? Henry’s work led to the important voyages of Christopher Columbus, who was from Santos, the Portuguese island close by Madeira; Vasco da Gama, who established a trade route around the Cape of Good Hope to India and Asia; Ferdinand Magellan, whose expedition circumnavigated the globe. There is also Afonso de Albuquerque, whose name eventually “landed” in New Mexico. No wonder Henry’s 19th century biographers dubbed him “The Navigator.”


Henry “the Navigator”

Lisbon’s Marine Museum documents this glorious history well. Henry’s statue graces the entry. It is backed by an important map of the world illustrating the Pope’s division of the world into two parts: Spain would have ownership of all lands west of a certain latitude in theIMG_2741 Atlantic; Portugal was given lands east. Only Brazil extended into Portugal’s legitimate territory, explaining why it is the only South American country that speaks Portuguese. The Museum of Fine Arts includes works from the countries explored (and exploited). For instance, Japanese screens depict Portugese visitors in fancy European garb.

Road Works that illuminate this important history of Portugal include the comprehensive Prince Henry “the Navigator”: A Life by Peter Russell (2001), Portugal’s Golden Years: The Life and Times of Prince Henry “The Navigator” (2006) by Carlos B. Carreiro, and The Last Crusade (2011), Nigel Cliff’s award-winning account of da Gama’s discoveries.


Tower of Bellem, set mid-river, which was a beacon for sailors leaving and returning.

The monument of discovery, a site close by the popular Tower of Bellem (Bethlehem), includes sculpted depictions of Portuguese explorers.


Philippa on the Discovery Monument

Only one woman is included in this group of men: Phillipa of Lancaster. She is deserving of a fine biography. It’s a book I’d certainly put on my Road Works list.


Life on the Douro River



Dam, lock, and Viking River Cruise Vessel


Bridge Over the Douro at Night

Mark Twain, Samuel L. Clemens’ pseudonym, refers to two fathoms—safe waters—for steamboats to travel the Mississippi. Navigating Portugal’s “River of Gold,” the Douro, takes careful navigating, not only for its captains plying the increasingly popular tourist route but also for readers. Cruises begin in Porto, which gave its name to harbors as well as to the famous fortified wine. The nearly 600-mile river narrows precipitously in parts, and the highest lock in Europe at 108 feet lifts and lowers specially built riverboats. The steep riverbanks are lined with quintas, massive wine estates. Sandeman, known by its trademark of a mysIMG_2915terious, caped figIMG_2832ured is an easily recognized one. Douro Valley: Journeys and Stories provides a guidebook to the region.IMG_2834


Two mysteries help guests wile away the hours on the sundeck of the river cruisers. The first, Death on the Douro by Roger Aspler (1997), begins with the dramatic death of the “Baron,” Joseph James Forester, a British gentleman who crusaded for higher port standards and who famously mapped the dramatic landscape of the Douro Valley. He drowned in a cataract known as the Devil’s Cauldron when his boat overturned, his body never found. The narrative flashes forward to a more contemporary time with Canadian wine journalist and amateur detective, Eric Brant, called in by a quinta owner to investigate mysterious happenings at the estate near Pinhao. Notable for its excellent details about port and its production, Death on the Douro is less effective as fiction. The protagonist, an aging and out-of-shape connoisseur of wine, somehow finds beautiful women attracted to him. The author commits the crime of “bringing a gun on stage and not having it go off.” Subplots that don’t go anywhere couple with grammatical errors. A nasty dangling modifier early on is confusing. As I’ve said before, where is Maxwell Perkins when you need him? Or perhaps the self-professed “Comma Queen” of The New Yorker could be brought on board.


Bookshop in Porto

A much better written novel is The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro by Italian author Antonio Tabucchi. Although it doesn’t stray from the main setting of Porto, it delivers local color. A young tabloid journalist, Firmino, is sent from Lisbon to Porto (also called Oporto) to investigate a gruesome murder. He has a prejudice about Porto but purchases a guidebook—perhaps from the famous Lello & Firmao bookshop—to learn more about the city. (The art nouveau bookstore, called one of the most beautiful in the world, was a favorite haunt of J. K. Rowling, when she taught English as a second language in Porto.)

Interior staircase at bookshop.

Interior staircase at bookshop.



Tripe at market

Defying expectations, this thriller is also a terrific place to learn about the food of Portugal. Firmino is not fond of Porto’s favored dish: tripe. Truly, Portugal eats the pig from tip to tail. (I passed on pickled pig’s ears.) Rojoes a la mode de Minho is a favorite of the narrator, the slow-cooked pork and potatoes that we ate at the Alpendurada Monastery turned hotel-restaurant, still cooked in the traditional way in wood-fired ovens. Slow-cured hams and local olives offer tasty bites before a meal. The novel’s emphasis on food is carried along by a philosophizing lawyer and gourmand who has a strong resemblance to Charles Laughton.


IMG_2893To check out enticing recipes, seek out cookbooks that feature updates on traditional recipes, such as The New Portuguese Table by David Leite, which includes recipes like a fresh fava bean and fennel salad. Traveling along the Douro will work up an appetite as tours visit not only wineries but also UNESCO-certified heritage bakeries like the ones in Favaios, famous for “Four Corner” bread that takes its shape from ancient Roman recipes.IMG_2909

The town of 1,000 produces eight times its population daily to supply this popular staple to other towns. It’s also the home of muscatel. A wine cooperative produces 30 million bottles of the sweet beverage annually, but the number is misleading as most of the containers are small—just large enough to be added to a glass of beer, an unusual but popular pairing. Tour guides wear shirts labeled “Follow Me. I know where the wine is.”IMG_2916






Slicing cured ham in Salamanca.

River cruises end at the border of Spain, and day trips by bus take in the golden city of Salamanca, home to the fourth oldest university in Europe. Read the 12th entry in Bernard Cornwall’s popular series—Sharpe’s Sword—to find a novel set in this university town during the Napoleonic Wars.


Plaza Mayor in Salamanca




For a fun read, try the nonfiction Cork Boat (2004) which details John Pollack’s funky dream to build a boat out of wine corks (165,000+) and rubber bands (15,000) in Washington, DC, where he was a speech writer for President Clinton, and have it shipped to Portugal, where he sailed up and back down the Douro River! The home of cork loved this adventure and celebrated his successful return to Porto. The memoir also demonstrates Pollack’s alacrity with language; he won the 1995 O. Henry World Championship Pun-Offs. If only we’d known. Our collection of corks saved for some eventual project—cork wreath, cork bulletin boards—is about to overwhelm. Check out a YouTube video of the final product. It takes about 50% of the book to arrive on the Douro River, but then there are terrific details about the area.


In the lock.


The lock entrance, where a gate will descend and enclose the boat for lifting.

The trip back down the Douro River includes five locks to be maneuvered. Although dams have tamed the Devil’s Cauldron, the often narrow river channel requires a savvy captain to find safe waters.IMG_2844

Finding Fernando in Portugal

“Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life.”

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

 Finding authors in country is always a challenge unless they’ve won the Nobel Prize for Literature as Jose Saramago of Portugal did in 1998. He has many titles from which to choose. I selected the historical novel, Baltasar and Blimunda (1998), as it is set during the Inquisition.

Pessoa as painted by NegreirosThe real find, though, in my mind, is Fernando Pessoa, enigmatic author who has been adopted as an icon. The plane we traveled on TAP (Portugal’s airline) was branded with his name. His image appears everywhere, striding confidently forward in fedora, bowtie, and long coat. A famous painting by Almada Negreiros shows him writing at a café (1934). By the way, Negreios is part of the modernist movement in which Pessoa is also a figure; the former’s Manifesto Anti-Dantes (1915) still has legs—even being adopted by a Taberna.

Pessoa authored poems such as the lines that appear above—a portion of a longer work; novels; and even a guide to Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See.

What the Tourist Should See

What the Tourist Should See

Who is Fernando Pessoa?

Born in 1888 in Lisbon, his family moved to South Africa when he was a child, so that he was fluent in both Portuguese and English. He was intensely patriotic; it’s said that he was disgusted that his schoolmates did not realize that the Cape of Good Hope and Capetown were named by Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. He returned to Lisbon as an adult and set about rectifying the country’s reputation as it was no longer carried the status it once did as the home of Explorers who had changed the world by discovering trade routes and making the globe somewhat smaller. The sadness and nostalgia for an earlier time is termed saudade, and its most eloquent embodiment is heard in Fado music.

One of the reasons Pessoa is a man of mystery is due to the fact that he published his work under many names. Influenced by Walt Whitman—“I contain multitudes”—he used heteronyms–multiple pseudonyms. Some of have called him “the four greatest Portuguese poets of the twentieth century.” His 35 Sonnets is available for free download as an e-book.

IMG_2813He’s also the author of The Book of Disquiet, a novel that’s been called one of the greatest works of the twentieth century. Why isn’t Pessoa better known? In addition to the difficulty of uncovering Pessoa within so many noms de plume, there’s also the problem that much of his work was discovered in a trunk after his death in 1935. An international team of scholars set about organizing the 27,000 documents that had not yet been published, The Book of Disquiet and What the Tourist Should See among them.IMG_2728


Brasileria Cafe

Although the guide was written in 1925, it remains amazingly readable, relevant, interesting, and popular. To visit Pessoa’s haunts, go to the Largo Chiado (largo is a public square) and its art nouveau Brasileira Café, where you’ll be able to take a selfie with the sculpted PesIMG_2754soa. Take in the tile-fronted buildings, enjoy a coffee, and read some of Pessoa’s words such as this delightful verse, part of a longer work.


Cat, you tumble down the street

As if it were our bed.

I think such luck’s a treat,

Like feeding without being fed.

 Coda: Other authors to note include the “Bard of Portugal,” Camoes, who authored the epic poem The Lusiads to memorialize Vasco da Gama’s tremendous accomplishment in 1498 of finding a trade route to India and China. It is mandatory reading for Portuguese school children. FYI: the Romans called Portugal Lusitania, the origin of Lusiads title. Tombs for both Camoes and da Gama are in the significant landmark, St. Geronimo’s Monastery in Lisbon, near the Tower of Bellem, another prized tourist site.

St. Geronimo's Monastery

St. Geronimo’s Monastery

Chiado and Carmo are two other well known poets. Eca de Querios (The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers; The Mystery of the Sintra Road) is a late 19th century novelist.

Although not Portuguese, one other “classic” author who addresses Portuguese is English novelist, Henry Fielding, famous for Tom Jones, and less well known for his memoir, The Journal of a Voyage to Portugal, where he was sent to regain his health. Even though he died shortly after arrival, the narrative from the mid-eighteenth century demonstrates his keen eye and biting social commentary.

Another snippet from Pessoa, in parting:

The poet is a feigner

Who’s so good at his act

He even feigns the pain

Of pain he feels in fact.


Madeira: Garden of the Atlantic

image  imageReid’s Palace, a pink hotel founded in 1891 on Madeira, is exactly the kind of luxurious place that Agatha Christie might have stayed, as did George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill. Road Works readers can imagine Miss Marple finding a body along the cliffside among the lush garden foliage or Poirot discovering, during the first running of the famous uphill car race in 1935, that a driver’s crash was engineered. (The 80th anniversary of the race was celebrated during our stay in 2015.)Carshow

Unfortunately, Christie did not visit Madeira. The closest she came was en route from England to South Africa on the Kildonan Castle when she was so seasick that she apparently said after four days of distress, “Just let me off in Madeira; I’d rather be a parlour maid there for the rest of my life than to sail another day.” She used that bit in her 1925 novel, The Man in the Brown Suit. The ship never did put in at Madeira.

Instead of the cozy whodunits that Christie supplies, readers have two mysteries that are mediocre at best, although they do supply local color. Tango in Madeira by Jim Williams (2013) is set post-World War I and actually includes both Christie and Shaw in the narrative. In this fictional account, the Kildonan Castle does moor in Madeira, and Christie does get off—although not to be a maid. When Christie and Shaw populate the cast of characters, then a Christie-style mystery might be expected. The author, though, says that his inspiration was Graham Greene, and that sardonic tone prevails. The mystery, such as it is, focuses on the murder of an enigmatic man. Michael Pinfold, the unsympathetic protagonist (in fact, no sympathetic characters exist) is having an affair with a married woman, having met her at dance lessons—hence, the tango in the title. He admits that he loves her but doesn’t like her. By the way, Shaw is also learning to dance. Interspersed with the narrative are Shavian drama and correspondence. The centerpiece of the mystery is the deposed Hapsburg ruler, and Williams offers a version of how he truly may have died at a rather young age. Think sardonic rather than cosy when picking up this novel.

The second mystery, The Malady in Madeira by Ann Bridges (1969), takes place during the Cold War. Russians are conducting nasty nerve gas experiments on high-plateau sheep—the “malady.” Julia, who has come to Madeira to visit British friends and to recover from the death of her husband (a British Intelligence agent), discovers the drugged animals when they go for a levada walk. Truly, levada—irrigation canal—walks are remarkable on this mountainous island, and the descriptions in the novel are helpful with advice such as to carry a “torch” (flashlight) as some levadas go through tunnels. As it turns out, Julia may be a better agent than her husband ever was as she solves knotty puzzles and willingly puts herself in harm’s way.

Trail signChestnutRewardCurraldasFreirasThe best book I read while on the island was Walk and Eat Madeira, a well written guide to paths and excursions, coupled with terrific descriptions of food and lodging, authored by a British couple, the Underwoods (2012). Their description of roasted chestnuts as a reward for walking Eiro de Serrado heightfrom the Eira do Serrado to the village Curral das Freiras (Nuns Valley) was mouthwatering and accurate. This particular trail traces the route of the mail carrier down to the village, who counted dozens of hairpin turns in her 1500 feet descent among chestnut trees and wildflowers. Updates to trails can be found online. A bonus is the use of recipes in the book. While it’s doubtful I’ll be able to try grilled limpets when back home, Reid’s Cake is definitely a possibility.

LevadaDosTournosSignWe took a pleasant stroll along the Levada de Tournos, departing Monte (above Funchal) and an intense urban setting, and were soon pleasantly in the forest, passing the odd village at intervals as well as an interesting Water House, where the water is channeled to reservoirs and lower fields. Picnicking along the flower-rampant trail—nasturtiums grow in profusion—is pleasant. Trails are easy as pie to get to, as the public bus system is amazingly well organized and regular. Walkers can gain access to many of the routes on a day out from the capital of Funchal.DFLOverLookFunchalWaterHouseNasturtiums





Tour buses can take travelers on an excursion of the deceptively small island—14 miles wide and 35 miles long—but difficult to travel due to mountainous terrain. Renting a car is not advised. Instead, make use of the public bus system, doing the research on the Horarios de Funchal, Roedoeste, or SAM sites. The latter “owns” the eastern part of the island routes primarily, the middle one the western region, and Horarios de Funchal the center and main city. We did a clockwise tour of the central island by hopping on Bus #6 at 7:35 am, which went from Funchal to Ribiera Brava (with a 10-minute “rest” stop), and then headed north through the valley that separates the east and west sections of the island. The Encumeada Pass (3000’) is spectacular and offers lodging for walkers. The descent to Sao Vicente is as breath-taking and (gulp) gut wrenching. Yes, some drop-offs exist, and roads are narrow. Bus drivers honk around curves to warn oncoming traffic, and sometimes, a vehicle must back up to give way to the larger bus.

FlowersTrailOur first leg stopped at Arco Sao Jorge, just in time for a picnic at a lovely flower-filled city park. An hour later, we were on bus #103 headed down a Highway 1 type coastal road to the quaint village of Santana with its triangular-shaped, thatched houses. Depending on the time of day, onward bus 103 may go via Ribeiro Frio (cold stream—noted for its trout) or through a series of tunnels that lead travelers quite quickly to the south coast at Machico. There, it is back along the southeastern coast on an expressway that goes under the airport runway to end back in Funchal.

This “Garden of the Atlantic” seems well suited to fictional treatment, but for the time being, a well-written travel guide with recipes to try at home trumps all.