Portugal: bike paths lined with poetry & wine so good it rarely leaves the country

“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) Image of the Tejo And Lisbon Aquarium by Gwendolyn Alley.

Last fall, I wrote an essay for a contest to travel to Portugal to taste wine in the Alentejo Region and to write about it. I came in as runner-up but when winner Sonadora of the blog Wannabe Wino canceled a few days before, trip sponsor Enoforum Wines invited me to go in her stead and accompany their publicist Jo Diaz of Wine Blog fame; Sonadora went in January 2010 and posted extensively while there.

(In addition to traveling and tasting in the Alentejo Region,  I was also able to attend the European Wine Bloggers Conference. Read more about the contest and my entry: 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–was delightful and I jotted down as many of those experiences as possible and posted them as quickly as possible on my blog: 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.

I thought it would be easy to write about Portugal when I came home. I had lots of ideas for blog posts. But writing more deeply about Portugal and my experiences there proved problematic.

Writing about how and why Portugal impacted me and changed me is hard because my brief time in 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. A bonus is they love to walk and ride bikes!

To write about Portugal is to try to express the importance of taking care of the land and expressing a love of life 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 and writers truly are revered by the Portuguese. Poets, playwrights, writers of all stripes are respected in a way I had never seen before–certainly not how we’re treated here in the US!

Likewise, living “green” and practicing sustainability is the way of life in Portugal. People who live and thrive in one place for so many generations 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 (and drink wine!)

Writing about Portugal in a way that honors it and really shows people why it is special is more difficult than I thought.

After our adventures in Alentejo, where we stayed in a castle with this view of the Roman Aquaduct, saw how closely people live to the land,  and enjoyed numerous meals of Portuguese cuisine paired with fabulous, affordable wines (most are under $20 US, around $10 in Portugal), 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.

Inside the spacious aquarium, the best one I’ve ever seen or could imagine, instead of only interpretive text, the Portuguese chose to post on the walls marine-oriented poetry in English and in Portuguese.

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.

Our last very full day in Portugal was spent in Lisboa and the Palace at Sintra; our last dinner was in a restaurant featuring fado singers (Delfim interpreted the lyrics)  and incredible food. I would have enjoyed several days in each and I lapped up every moment: we even convinced the guard at Sintra to let us in after closing. I would have raced up the stone steps to the top if I wasn’t so concerned that Delfim and Jo would be worried.

We walked along the shores of the Tejo which greets the Atlantic near Lisboa and we saw under construction broad bike and pedestrian paths displaying roadways. As a cyclist, I was thrilled to see that Lisboa was making this move; I also knew that Lisboa recently hosted an Aeolian Ride (more Lisbon Aeolian ride photos here by Jessica Findley; I also plan to do a post about the Aeolian Ride there and in Santa Barbara in October). What better way to know a place than by traveling the countryside tasting wine and eating traditional meals or by getting out of a car to walk or cycle?

While I never did get a chance to go for a bike ride, the importance tot he Portuguese of language, of poetry, and of staying connected to the land resonated within me.

On our last morning, we went  to the Jeronimos Monastery and saw the tomb of the famed Portuguese poet Luis de Camoes (1525-1580) who led quite an adventurous life, traveled to India and China by ship, and more which enriches his epic poem The Lusiads about Vasco de Gama on the voyage that ultimately connected Europe to India. 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 decorative edifices in Portugal. Read one of Luis Camoes poems here.

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, Delfim bought me a copy of the epic poem The Lusiads 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.”

Read more about Portugal’s poetry lined paths http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/02/portugals-new-bike-paths-are-filled-with-poetry-video.php.

Portugal offers so much more than port! Beautiful landscapes, an extensive literary tradition, stunning castles, amazing food, bicycle paths lined with poetry, and more! Yes, more Portugal posts coming up!