Portugal Trip : Day 7

Day 7, 19 August: I climbed to the top of the Castelo de S’Jorge and admired the view. Below me, Alfama, the Baixa, Bairro Alto, and the River Tagus, or Rio Tejo. Spanning the Tagus, the Ponte 25 de Abril, once known as the Salazar Bridge, after the economics professor from Coimbra who became dictator. After the regime fell on April 25, 1974, in a virtually bloodless coup, the new leaders changed the name. Since the revolt, Portugal has been on a democratic road, exchanging the rule of the caudillo for the rule of law.

Thinking of the dictatorships and the coups, and of the stray dogs, I shook my head. Was I in Latin America again? No, Europe. But Peripheral Europe, Iberian Europe. You’re closer to Africa here than Paris. This very hill I’m standing on, this Castelo, was Muslim until the siege of 1147. The name of the charming quarter below me, Alfama, is Arabic. No region of Western Europe brushed so close to Islam as Iberia.

Even in recent times, the experience of Spain and Portugal differs greatly from that of the European heartland. I was surprised to learn that Portugal actually did fight for the Allies in World War I. She stayed out of the Second. Spain took no sides in either of the world wars. Up in northern Europe, by contrast, you can’t drive a few hundred kilometers without passing a war cemetery.

Walking around Alfama, I saw a thick old lady standing on a street corner, at the foot of a hill. Faintly she called to me. I came. She asked me to help her walk. Though big, she apparently had trouble walking. I let her hold me. She gripped me tightly. We shuffled uphill together. I left her safe at her door.