Things to see and do - Portugal and Madeira
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Portugal and Madeira Leisure tips
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The Country Today
The Country Today
Portugal today has a thriving economy, as seen from the vast amount of construction work in progress. It has become a vital part of the European Union and continues to play its part in the world economy. Tourism is of great importance, and the infrastructure within the country, so crucial to tourism, continues to be developed and modernised.
At the time of the 1974 Carnation Revolution, Portugal had fallen behind many of its European neighbours. Lack of investment in the country‘s industry and infrastructure under the Salazar regime was the cause, even though Portugal had significant gold reserves originating mainly from its mining concerns in its former colonies. Traditional activities, such as agriculture and fishing, still formed the basis of the country’s economy until its membership of the European Economic Community in 1986, which marked a transitional point in Portugal’s development, thanks in part to EEC aid. Today Portugal remains one of the world’s largest producers of wine and is the leading producer of cork – while leading industries in the industrial and transformation fields include shoe, textile and paper production, car manufacturing, metallurgy and mechanical engineering. Tourism is still very important.
The Constitution , promulgated on 2 April 1976, brought in a semi-presidential form of government. Executive power is held by the President of the Republic who is elected by universal suffrage for a five-year term (renewable once). The president appoints the Prime Minister , who represents the Parliamentary majority, and, on his suggestion, the rest of the government. The revised Constitution of 1982 has limited the president’s powers although he retains the right to veto laws approved by straight majority vote in the Assembly. Legislative power is held by a single Chamber of between 240 and 250 members who are elected for four years. The archipelagos of Madeira and the Azores are Autonomous Regions with their own Regional Government and Regional Assembly. The Assembly is elected by universal suffrage. The President of the Republic appoints a Minister of the Republic for each of the autonomous regions, who then appoints a Regional Government President .
The old historical provinces of the Minho, Trás-os-Montes, Douro, Beiras (Alta, Baixa and Litoral), Ribatejo, Estremadura, Alentejo and Algarve no longer fulfil an administrative role but still denote the main regions of the country.
Portugal’s present administrative organisation is as follows:
Ο Distritos : There are 18 districts in mainland Portugal, three in the Azores and one in Madeira. Health, education and finance are managed at district level.
Ο Concelhos : These councils represent municipal authority. There are 305 in all. A concelho is similar to a district borough or a canton. Each one has a town hall or Paço do Concelho and an executive committee or Câmara Municipal led by a president who acts as mayor. Both the president and the municipal assembly are elected by universal suffrage every four years.
Ο Lastly, each concelho consists of several freguesias , the smallest administrative unit, some of which represent a village, and others a district. There are approximately 4 200 freguesias in Portugal, responsible for keeping public records, civil status, the upkeep of natural heritage, and organising festivals and other local events.
Portugal has preserved different styles of traditional housing; these styles are most apparent in the Alentejo and the Algarve.
The most popular building material is granite. Houses are massive with tiled roofs. As chimneys are very small or even non-existent, the smoke has to escape through gaps in the roof, the doorway or the windows. The outside stairway leads to a stone balcony or verandah large enough to be used as a living room.
On country estates in the Douro valley, simple cottages stand alongside elegant manor-houses (solares) , which are often whitewashed.
The Centre: Estremadura and Beira Litoral
The limestone used in the region’s houses adds a pleasant touch to their appearance. The façades are often ornamented with cornices and stucco; outside staircases have disappeared.
The houses, built to shelter the inhabitants from the summer glare and heat, are low-lying single storey structures with whitewashed walls and small doors and windows. Nevertheless, the winters are so harsh that huge square or cylindrical chimneys are a local feature. Building materials vary according to the region: usually taipa (dried clay), or adobe (mud mixed with cut straw and dried in the sun), which was used in Moorish times. Bricks are used for decorative features, for chimneys, crenellations and verandahs, while around Estremoz marble is common.
The white houses squat low, several juxtaposed cubes making up each dwelling. The white flat-roofed houses in Olhão and Fuseta resemble the villages of North Africa. Very occasionally the terrace is replaced by a four-sided peaked roof, telhado de tesoura , which some attribute to a Chinese influence. Peaked roofs are mostly to be seen in Faro, Tavira and Santa Luzia. Chimneys are slender and elegant, gracefully pierced, painted white or built of brick laid in decorative patterns, crowned with a ball, a finial, a vase, or an ornament of some kind.
Madeira and the Azores
In Madeira, traditional mountain dwellings have a thatched roof with two eaves that descend right down to the ground, thus covering the whole house. The main door on the front of the house is flanked by two small windows, with an occasional third one above it. All these openings are set into the wall with colourful surrounds. Houses in the Azores are similar to those in the Algarve, offering a reminder of the islands’ first inhabitants. The Empires (Impérios) of the Holy Ghost are brightly-coloured original buildings, similar in style to chapels, which have large windows and are used to house objects for the worship of the Holy Ghost.
Traditional urban features
Throughout the country and even in Madeira and the Azores, pavements and squares are paved with beautifully patterned compositions of alternating blocks of black basalt, golden sandstone, white limestone and grey granite. These are known as empedrados .
There were about 2 000 windmills in Portugal several years ago but most have now been abandoned and are in ruins. They may still be seen on hilltops around Nazaré, Óbidos and Viana do Castelo. Those most common today are the Mediterranean type in which a cylindrical tower built of stone or hard-packed clay supports a turning conical roof bearing a mast. The mast carries four triangular sails.
Stone monuments (Padrões)
These public monuments, memorials bearing the cross and the arms of Portugal, were erected by Portuguese explorers when they reached new lands. They may be seen in former colonies and in Madeira and the Azores.
Portugal’s arts and crafts are remarkably varied and unpretentious. The weekly markets held in most towns give a good idea of the skill of Portuguese craftsmanship.
Ceramics and pottery
There are many village potters (olarios) producing domestic and decorative earthenware which varies in shape and colour according to the region. In Barcelos, pots are glazed, colours bright with ornamentation consisting of leaves, stems and flowers; handsome multicoloured cocks are also made locally. Around Coimbra, the colour used is green with brown and yellow overtones and the decoration is more geometric. The potters of Caldas da Rainha use bright green and produce items with surprising shapes. Continuing the tradition set up by Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, water jugs, salad bowls and plates are all heavily adorned with leaves, flowers and animals. In Alcobaça and Cruz da Légua the potters work with more classical designs, distinguishing their ware by the variety of blues they use in its decoration.
In the Upper Alentejo (in Redondo, Estremoz and Nisa) the clay is encrusted with shining quartz particles or marble chips; in the Algarve amphorae are still made based on Greek and Roman models, while in Tras-os-Montes the potters damp down their ovens at the end of the firing to give the ware a black colour.
Lace is made virtually only along the coast. The decorative motifs used are fir cones and flowers, trefoils at Viano do Castelo where the lace looks more like tulle, and seaweed, shells and fish at Vila do Conde.
Madeira’s embroidery is particularly well-known, although mainland Portugal also produces wonderful shawls, tablecloths and bedspreads. The best-known bedspreads (colchas) are from Castelo Branco and are embroidered with silk on linen. The tradition is a long-standing one, the work painstaking.
The working by hand of gold or silver wire which reached its height in the reign of King João V (1706–50) is still held in high regard in Portugal. The chief centre is the small town of Gondomar not far from Oporto. Delicate, intricate jewellery in the shape of hearts, crosses, guitars and above all caravels is fashioned from this extremely pliable wire. In the Minho, filigree earrings and brooches are worn to set off the regional costume.
Weaving and carpet-making
Hand weaving still flourishes in some mountain villages. Lengths of heavy frieze are woven on old looms to make capes and tippets. Guimarães specialises in bedspreads and curtains in rough cloth bordered with classical motifs in bright colours. The hemp or linen-based carpets embroidered in wool at Arraiolos are the best known of their type and have simpler designs.
In the Alentejo many items made of wood, including trays, chairs and cupboards, are painted with brightly-coloured, naive motifs.
Painted whitewood is an important feature of traditional Portuguese handicraft and may be seen all over the country. Examples include ox yokes (the most famous being in the Barcelos region), painted carts (in the Alentejo and the Algarve) and carved and painted fishing boats (in the Ria de Aveiro and on many of the country’s beaches).
Rushes, willows and rye straw are all used to make decorative and utilitarian wickerwork baskets. Pack saddles may be seen in Trás-os-Montes with twin pairs of deep cylindrical baskets on either side.
Wherever the cork oak grows (particularly in the Alentejo and the Algarve), a local craft has developed, making cork boxes, key rings, belts, bags and hundreds of other creations.
There are many theories about the origin of the fado : a monotonous chant that derived from the troubadour songs of the Middle Ages, or, a song with Moorish or Afro-Brazilian roots.
The fado first appeared in Portugal in the late 18C in the form of sentimental sailors’ songs. It developed in the early 19C during the troubled times of the Napoleonic Wars, English domination and the independence of Brazil. These circumstances explain the popular response to the song, with its serious subject matter, usually the forces of destiny (the name fado is said to come from the Latin fatum: destiny) or human passions. It became popular in Lisbon in 1820 with the singer Maria Severa . In 1833 the first fado houses (casas de fado) opened and the song took on its present form. By the end of the century it had become a literary genre and the great poets and writers of the day tried their hand at it. A fastida figure began to appear in novels, wandering from fado house to fado house, sitting in a cloud of smoke, drinking and, eyes half-closed, listening to nostalgic tunes. At the beginning of the 20C the fado served as a means for critics to voice their ideological quarrels.
The singer Amália Rodriguez , who died in 1999, brought the fado international fame, so much so that it has become the symbol of Portugal and its saudade.
Singing and playing the fado
The singer (fadista) , often a woman, is accompanied by one or two instrumentalists. The Portuguese guitar (guitarra) differs from the Spanish (viola) in having twelve strings as opposed to six, and is thus a more subtle instrument. The fadista , who is often dressed in black, stands straight, head thrown back, eyes half closed, and sings out in a strong, often deep, voice. The effect is very beautiful, moving and captivating.
The Lisbon fado , which can be heard in restaurants in the city’s old quarters, more closely resembles the original fado form than the Coimbra version. This latter, which is gradually dying out, is sung only by men, dressed in large black student capes. The subject matter is generally about students’ love affairs with working-class women.
Romarias are religious festivals held in honour of a saint. The most important are in northern Portugal, particularly in the Minho. Small romarias in mountain chapels last one day, but the larger ones in towns can last several days. Some groups, such as the fishermen of Póvoa de Varzim, hold their own romarias .
A few days prior to the festival the organisers make a collection. Gifts in kind are collected in baskets decked with flowers and garlands and are then auctioned. The collections, which mark the start of the festivities, are enlivened by players such as the gaitero or bagpiper, the fogueteiro or firework lighter and, in the Alentejo, the tamborileiro or tambourine player. Streets are carpeted with flowers.
The candle (Círio)
The most important part of the religious ceremony is the solemn bearing of a candle, from which the name círio has evolved to describe the focal point of the romaria . The candle is borne on a flower-decked cart; behind, led by the gaitero , follows a procession accompanying the statue of a saint or the Virgin covered in garlands, lace and flowers.
The procession circles the sanctuary two or three times accompanied by musical instruments and fire-crackers. The candle is then set down near the altar and the faithful advance to kiss the feet of the saint.
The “Saints of Intercession”
To win special favour from certain saints, believers perform acts of penance such as going round the sanctuary on their knees.
The traditional worship of the Holy Ghost is particularly deep-rooted in the Azores and Brazil. The famous Tabuleiros festival (Festa dos Tabuleiros) in Tomar, organised in bygone days by Holy Ghost brotherhoods, founded in the 14C, continues to this day.
Once the religious ceremonies are over, the festivities, usually a meal, dancing and fireworks, begin. Local crafts are always on sale at a romaria.
Unlike the Spanish corrida , part of the Portuguese tourada is performed on horseback, and the bull is not killed. The fight to the death was banned in the 18C. Touradas were originally created by the nobility to train for the battlefield, using Lusitanian horses, which are renowned for their agility and intelligence .
The bullfighting season in Portugal lasts from Easter to October; contests are usually held twice a week, on Thursdays and Sundays. The best known fights take place in the Praça de Touros in Lisbon, Santarém and Vila Franca de Xira, near the areas in the Ribatejo where the bulls are bred.
Traditional Portuguese meals are copious and wholesome. The menu can consist of several dishes, usually prepared with olive oil and flavoured with aromatic herbs such as rosemary and bay leaves. Eggs play an important part in Portuguese food, being used in soups and often to accompany fish and meat dishes. Rice, for which the Portuguese developed a liking following their voyages to Asia, is the most favoured vegetable. Fried potatoes are also commonly served.
Soup is served at most meals. Among the many varieties are canja de galinha, chicken soup with rice, sopa de peixe , fish soup, sopa de marisco , seafood soup, sopa de coelho , rabbit soup, and sopa de grão , chickpea soup.
The most famous is the Minho caldo verde which is served north of the Mondego. This dish consists of a mashed potato base to which finely shredded green Galician cabbage is added; lastly olive oil and slices of black pudding, tora, are mixed in.
Bread soups or açordas are to be found in all regions, those of the Alentejo having many variations such as the sopa de coentros made with coriander leaves, olive oil, garlic and bread, with a poached egg on top.
In the south, gaspacho , a soup of tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and chillies seasoned with garlic and vinegar, is served cold with croutons.
Fish and seafood
Fish is a basic element of Portuguese cuisine. Cod, bacalhau , is the most common fish, particularly in the north, though there are issues involved with the dwindling stocks of cod in the Atlantic and surrounding areas. There are, it is said, 365 ways of preparing it
Many other fish, however, are to be found in some part or other of the country: the aroma of grilled sardines wafts the streets of every coastal town; many types of fish are put into the caldeirada or stew made by fishermen on the beach. You will get tunny fillets in the Algarve, river lampreys and salmon beside the Minho and shad beside the Tagus. Seafood (mariscos) including octopus is plentiful. Shellfish are delicious and varied especially in the Algarve where a special copper vessel, a cataplana, is used to cook clams and sausages spiced with herbs.
Crayfish (lagosta) prepared in the Peniche way, or steamed, are rightly famous.
Meat and game
Apart from pork and game, Portuguese meat is often very ordinary. Pork is cooked and served in a variety of ways. The leitão assado , or roast suckling-pig, of Mealhada (north of Coimbra) is delicious. Meat from various parts of the pig can also be found in stews, in linguiça or smoked pigs’ tongue sausages, in smoked pork fillets, paio, and in smoked ham, presunto, at Chaves and Lamego. Ham and sausages are added to the cozido à Portuguesa , a hotpot of beef, vegetables, potatoes and rice, also to the local tripe prepared in the Oporto way, dobrada, a dish of pig or beef tripe cooked with haricot beans.
Pork in the Alentejo way, or carne de porco à Alentejana , is pork marinated in wine, garnished with clams. Other meat is mostly minced and consumed as meat balls, although lamb and kid are sometimes roasted or served on skewers.
Cheeses are made all over Portugal with several special varieties being made in the Azores. It is possible to visit several cheese producers, many of which are small-scale cottage industries where you will get a personal tour as well as the opportunity to try (and hopefully buy) some of the often hand-made product. Ewes’ milk cheese should be tried between October and May, notably the Queijo da Serra da Estrela, the Queijo de Castelo Branco and the creamy Queijo de Azeitão as well as goats’ milk cheeses such as the cabreiro, the rabaçal from the Pombal region and the small soft white cheeses or quejinhos from Tomar, often served as an hors d’œuvre as is the fresh goat’s cheese, Queijo fresco.
Portugal has an infinite variety of cakes and pastries. Nearly all recipes include eggs and come in most instances from old specialities prepared in convents such as the Toucinho-do-Céu , Barriga-de-Freira and Queijadas de Sintra , with almonds and fresh sheep’s milk. The dessert most frequently seen on menus, however, is the pudim flan , a sort of crème caramel, while the leite-creme is a creamier pudding made with the same ingredients. Rice pudding, arroz doce , sprinkled with cinnamon is often served at festive meals.
In the Algarve, the local figs (figos) and almonds (amêndoas) are made into the most appetising sweetmeats and tidbits.
A particularly delicious pastry is the pasteis de nata , a small custard tart sprinkled with cinnamon.
Portugal is the seventh largest wine-producer in the world and has a rich variety of wines, including the world famous Port and, although not quite as popular as it once was but still important, Madeira . The reasonably-priced wines bought locally or enjoyed in a restaurant are of good quality, suitable for all occasions and deserve to be better known.
The vines of the Upper Douro and its tributaries produce a generous wine which is shipped from the city that gave it its name (Oporto) only after it has matured.
The English and port
In the 14C some of the wines produced in the Lamego region were already being exported to England. In the 17C the Portuguese granted the English trading rights in exchange for their help against the Spanish. By the end of the 17C, once the port process had been developed, some Englishmen acquired country estates (quintas) in the Douro valley and began making wine. Through the Methuen Treaty (1703) the English crown obtained the monopoly of the Portuguese wine trade. However in 1756, to combat this English invasion, King Dom José I and the Marquis of Pombal founded the Company of the Wines of the Upper Douro (Companhia Geral da Agricultura dos Vinhos do Alto Douro) which fixed the price for all exported port. The following year the company defined the area in which port vines could be grown. Various English companies were set up, among them Cockburn, Campbell, Offley, Harris, Sandeman, Dow, Graham etc. The Portuguese followed suit in 1830 with their own companies with names like Ferreira and Ramos Pinto. In 1868 phylloxera raged throughout the region but the vineyards were rapidly rehabilitated – many of the vineyards were grafted from phylloxera-resistant American stocks – and “vintage” port was being produced by the end of the 19C.
The area defined by law in 1757 for the cultivation of vines covers 240 000ha/593 000 acres of which a tenth consists of vineyards that stretch for about sixty miles along the Douro to the Spanish border. The approximate centre is situated at Pinhão. There are 25 000 vineyard owners. Port’s inestimable quality is due to the exceptional conditions under which the grapes are grown and ripened – hot summers, cold winters, and schist soil – and the processing of the fruit when harvested. The vines grow on steep terraces overlooking the Douro, a striking picture not only from an aesthetic point of view but also in terms of the extraordinary amount of work involved.
The making of port
The grape harvest takes place in late September. Men carry the bunches of grapes in wickerwork baskets on their backs. The cut grapes go into the press where mechanical crushing has taken the place of human treading which, with its songs and rhythmic tunes, was so highly picturesque. The must is sealed off during fermentation which reduces the sugar content to the right amount, then brandy – from Douro grapes – is added to stop the fermentation and to stabilise the sugar. In the spring the wine is taken by lorry and train to Vila Nova de Gaia. Up until a few years ago it was transported 150km/90mi along the Douro to Oporto in picturesque sailing craft known as barcelos rebelos. Some of these boats may be seen at Pinhão and Vila Nova da Gaia.
The wine is stored with the 58 port wine companies that have set up in Vila Nova da Gaia and matures in huge casks or, more commonly, in vats containing up to 1 000hl/26 400 imperial gallons. It is then decanted into 535l/118 gallon barrels (pipes) in which the porous nature of the wood augments the ageing process. The Wine Institute (Instituto do Vinho do Porto) sets the rules and controls the quality.
Types of port
Port, which is red or white according to the colour of the grapes from which it is made, has many subtleties – it can be dry, medium or sweet. The variety of port also depends upon the way it is made. Port aged in casks matures through oxidation and turns a beautiful amber colour; port aged in the bottle matures by reduction and is a dark red colour. The alcohol content is about 20%.
Vintage ports are selected from the best wines of a particularly fine year and are bottled after two years in casks. They then mature in the bottle for at least ten years or more before being served. Since 1974 all Vintage Port must be bottled in Portugal.
White port or Branco is less well known than the reds. It is a fortified wine made from white grapes. Dry or extra dry, it makes a good apéritif.
Blended ports are red ports made from different vintages from different years. The blending and ageing differ according to the quality required. They include:
Ο Tinto , the most common, which is young, vigorous, distinctly coloured and fruity.
Ο Tinto-Alourado or Ruby , which is older, yet rich in colour, fruity and sweet and is the result of the blending of different vintages from different years.
Ο Alourado or Tawny is blended with different vintages from different years and ages in wooden cakes. Its colour turns to a brownish gold as it ages. It should be drunk soon after it is bottled.
Ο Alourado-Claro or Light Tawny is the culmination of the former.
Choosing and serving port
White port , which should be drunk chilled and is best served as an aperitif, is the least expensive followed by the reds ( Ruby and Tawny ). Very good quality Tawny ports will provide an indication of their age on the label (10, 20, 30 or more years spent in the barrel). Next come the ports which bear their vintage date (colheita) ; they have been made with wines from the same year. The best and most expensive are Vintage ports and Late Bottled Vintage Ports (L.B.V.) . The former are made with wine from an exceptionally good year and are bottled after two to three years; likewise, the latter are made with wine from the same vineyard and are bottled after four to six years. These can be kept for many years provided that they are laid down horizontally and are stored at a suitable temperature. Vintage port should be served in a carafe and drunk quickly, preferably on the day the bottle is opened. All ports, with the exception of the whites, are a perfect accompaniment to game, hams, foie gras, cheeses, dried fruit etc.
For additional information on port, contact the Instituto do Vinho in Oporto (website: http://www.ivp.pt) which, in association with other official organisations, particularly the Port Wine Route association in Peso da Régua and the region’s tourist offices, has created a Port Wine Route within the official Douro region. The itinerary passes through 54 sites, including estates, co-operatives and wine information centres, providing visitors with an ideal opportunity to discover the beautiful landscapes of the region and to taste its most famous product.
Since 1963 the French have replaced the English as the largest importers of port.
Madeira wine, which deserves to be more widely celebrated, has always been particularly popular with the English .
Several regions in Portugal produce perfectly respectable wines that can be enjoyed in restaurants. One can ask for the vinho da casa , usually the local wine.
Vinho Verde from the Minho and the Lower Douro valleys can be white (tendency to gold) or deep red. Its name, “green wine” comes from its early grape harvest and short fermentation period which gives the wine a low alcohol content (8% to 11%) and makes it light and sparkling with a distinct bouquet and what might be described as a very slightly bitter flavour. It is best enjoyed young and chilled. It is an ideal aperitif and is a perfect accompaniment to both fish and seafood. The most renowned vinho verde is produced from the Alvarinho grape, which enables the wine to be kept longer than wine produced from other grape varieties.
Vines growing on the granite slopes of the Dão valley produce a fresh white wine as well as a sweet red wine with a velvety texture and a heady bouquet which most closely resembles Bordeaux crus . Quinta wines are the equivalent of French château wines.
This very old vine-growing region produces a robust, fragrant red, as well as a natural sparkling wine which goes wonderfully well with roast suckling pig.
The vines grow in a sandy topsoil over a bed of clay in the Serra de Sintra. The robust, velvety, dark red wine has been famous since the 13C.
Bucelas is a dry, somewhat acidic straw-coloured white wine produced from vineyards on the banks of the Trancão, a tributary of the Tagus.
Other table wines
The Ribatejo vineyards produce good everyday wines; full bodied reds from the Cartaxo region and whites from Chamusca, Almeirim and Alpiarça on the far bank of the Tagus.
Also worth trying are the wines of Torres Vedras, Alcobaça, Lafões and Agueda, and the Pinhel and Mateus rosés.
In the Alentejo, full-bodied reds such as Reguengos, Borba and Redondo predominate. The one exception to this is the white Vidigueira wine.
In the Algarve, a small amount of wine is still produced in Lagoa, home to the country’s oldest co-operative .
Setúbal moscatel from the chalky clay slopes of the Serra da Arrábida is a generous fruity wine which acquires a particularly pleasant taste with age.
Fruity amber-coloured Carcavelos is drunk as an apéritif as well as a dessert wine.
The wide variety of Portuguese brandies includes ginginha , cherry brandy from Alcobaça, medronho , arbutus berry brandy and brandimel , honey brandy from the Algarve. Bagaço or bagaceira , a grape marc, served chilled, is the most widely drunk.
Portugal produces fine mineral waters, such as the Água de Luso and the sparkling waters of Castelo, Carvalhelhos, Vidago and Pedras Salgadas. The most common beer served is light and similar to lager. The country’s fruit juices, both still (sem gás) and sparkling (com gás) , are also excellent and refreshing.