Portugal: where poets and place are appreciated

“The river of my village doesn’t make you think about anything.
When you’re at its bank you’re only at its bank.”

“The Tejo has big boats
And there navigates in it still,
For those who see what’s not there in everything,
The memory of fleets.”

Lines from “O Guardador de Rebanhos” by Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa (written under his pseudonym, Alberto Caeiro)

In November, when I returned from my trip to Portugal, I posted a poem by Portuguese poet and adventurer Luis Camoes who is buried in the Jeronimos Monastery. He is such an important figure to the Portuguese that his birthday is Portugal Day and quotes from his work are commonly and prominently placed on edifices in Portugal.

Learn how and why I was Portugal via  Jo Diaz’s Wine Blog from Enoforum Wines: October 26, 2009 I’m a WINNER! Wine Predator to Attend European Wine Bloggers Conference & Enoforum Oct 30-Nov. 5!.

Traveling in Portugal, exploring the scenic castles, discovering the delicious, flavorful cuisine, tasting the nicely balanced wines,  jotting down as many of those experiences as possible, and posting them as quickly as possible on my blog was awesome and easy. I just didn’t sleep since my days were filled from dawn to well after dark! I kept telling Jo, “we can sleep when we’re dead!” Read about our whirlwind travels here–that’s Jo below at Monsarez.

Writing about how and why Portugal impacted me and changed me is hard. Portugal had a profound impact on me–and that surprised me. There are a number of reasons but one is that I had no idea that the Portuguese had such a reverence for two of the most important aspects of life to me: the land and literature.

I discovered that to write about Portugal is to try to express the importance of taking care of the land, maintaining a connection to the land, and expressing that love of life and land through the written word, through literature. Literature lives in the hearts of the Portuguese people–lit is not just a class they have to get through.

Literature CONNECTS the Portuguese to the land.

Living “green” and practicing sustainability is the way of life in Portugal. A people who have lived and thrived in one place for so many generations has to learn this in order to survive there and not run out of natural resources. According to my host Delfim Costa of Enoforum Wines, unlike other European countries, Portugal’s priority was not colonizing. Instead they established a series of ports so they could keep exploring–and then return home again.

After our adventures in Alentejo, where we stayed in a castle and enjoyed this view of the Roman Aquaduct, and saw how closely people live to the land, and how integrated agriculture is, Delfim drove us to Lisboa. We had a little time on our hands to explore and since our hotel was located on the waterfront near the Aquarium,  that’s where we walked along a broadway that caters to both cyclists and pedestrians.

Another example of the importance of literature to the Portuguese: inside the spacious aquarium, the best one I’ve ever seen or could imagine, instead of only interpretive text, the Portuguese chose to post poetry in English and in Portuguese to articulate the importance of the sea to life.

Outside the Aquarium, we enjoyed walking along by the shore, the site of the 1990 Europian Exposition. Stalls which housed exhibits about various countries now were home to different restaurants featuring ethnic cuisines. The evening weather was mild and we saw plenty of people strolling and riding bicycles–even late at night when we were walking back to our hotel.

Walking along the shores of the Tejo which greets the Atlantic near Lisboa, we saw under construction broad bike and pedestrian paths displacing roadways.  These paths are both for the many tourists who flock this area as well as for the locals. I found this dedication and forward thinking a cause of celebration; motorists of course are frustrated–the traffic there is dense enough already. How else will we transform our cities unless we make it easier and safer to commute by bicycle? Lisbon is following the lead of other European cities and is far ahead of cities in the United States.

As a cyclist, I was thrilled to see that Lisboa was making this move; I also knew that Lisboa recently hosted an Aeolian ride. What better way to know a place than by getting out of a car to walk or cycle?

On my last day in Portugal, the importance to the Portuguese of language, poetry, and staying connected to the land resonated within me. 

Because Enoforum Wines recognizes that a wine is more than the grapes, that it includes the poetry of the people who make the wine and live on the land, at Jeronimos Delfim bought me a copy of the epic poem The Lusiads by Luis Camoes as well as a collection by Fernando Pessoa.

The following words by Pessoa grace the now open pedestrian and bicycle path. Watch a video of Portugal’s Poetic Paths here:

“The river of my village doesn’t make you think about anything.
When you’re at its bank you’re only at its bank.”

“Through the Tejo you go to the World.
Beyond the Tejo is America
And the fortune you encounter there.
Nobody ever thinks about what’s beyond
The river of my village.”

“The Tejo runs down from Spain
And the Tejo goes into the sea in Portugal.
Everybody knows that.
But not many people know the river of my village
And where it comes from
And where it’s going.
And so, because it belongs to less people,
The river of my village is freer and greater.”

“The Tejo has big boats
And there navigates in it still,
For those who see what’s not there in everything,
The memory of fleets.”

“The Tejo is more beautiful than the river that flows through my village,
But the Tejo isn’t more beautiful than the river that flows through my village,
Because the Tejo isn’t the river that flows through my village.”

The Embark & The Goodbye: Luis de Camoes

Poetry from Portugal: The Embark & The Goodbye by Luis de Camoes

actorBelem Jeronimos Monastery
from Ploughing the Sea: Poems from the Lusiadas
by Luis de Camoes
Canto IV: 86-93

Having done everything practical
To make ready for so long a voyage,
We prepared our souls to meet death
Which is always on a sailor’s horizon.
To God on high who alone sustains
The heavens with his beloved presence,
We asked His favour that He should endorse
Our every enterprise and steer our course.

The holy chapel from which we parted
Is built there on the very beach,
And takes its name, Belem, from the town
Where God was given to the world as flesh.
O King, I tell you, when I reflect
On how I parted from that shore,
Tormented by so many doubts and fears,
Even now it is hard to restrain my tears.

Portuguese explorers statue near Belem
That day, a vast throng from the city
(As friends, as family, others
only to watch), crowded the shore,
Their faces anxious and dismayed
Looking on, as in the holy company
Of a thousand zealous monks
With heartfelt intercessions on our lips
We marched in solemn file towards the ships.

The people considered us already lost
On so long and uncertain of a journey,
The women with piteous wailing
The men with agonizing sighs;
Mothers, sweethearts, and sisters, made
Fretful by their love, heightened
The desolation and the arctic fear
We should not return for many a long year.

One such was saying: “O my dear son,
My only comfort and sweet support
In this my tottering old age, now
Doomed to end in grief and pain,
Why do you leave me wretched and indigent?
Why do you travel so far away,
To be lost at sea as your memorial,
And bloated fish as your only burial?”

Or one bareheaded: “O dearest husband,
But for whose love I could not exist,
Why do you risk on the angry seas
That which belongs to me, not you?
Why, for so dubious a voyage, do you
Forget our sweet affection?
Is our passion, our happiness so frail
As to scatter in the wind swelling the sail?”

As these piteous, loving speeches
Poured from gentle, human hearts,
The old and the children took them up
In the different manner of their years.
The nearest mountains echoed them,
As if stirred by nearest sympathy,
While tears as many as the grains of sand
Rained without ceasing on the white strand.

As for us, we dared not lit our faces
To our mothers and our wives, fearing
To be harrowed, or discouraged
From the enterprise so firmly begun,
And I decided we should all embark
Without the customary farewells,
For, though they may be love’s proper course,
They make the pain of separation worse.

published 1752

Portuguese poet Luis de Camoes (1525-1580) led quite an adventurous life, which included traveling to India and China by ship. His hands-on experience enriches his epic poem The Lusiads about Vasco de Gama on the voyage which ultimately connected Europe to India. He is such an important figure to the Portuguese that his birthday is Portugal Day and his tomb is at the Jeronimos Monastery (pictured–with an actor from a Portuguese Ren era play waiting in the wings!). More to come about and from Camoes!

For more poetry, ride the Monday Poetry Train!

PS I send my gratitude to Enoforum Wine for the copy of the book from which I quote. I was admiring it in the book store at the monastery and trying to find it on the shelf to buy it when it was quickly purchased for me along with a collection by Fernando Pessoa. Enoforum Wines recognizes that a wine is more than the grapes; it even includes the poetry of the people who make the wine and live on the land. I agree. Thank you!