Winter in Portugal. It is not a conventional choice but where is the fun in conventional. Arriving two days before Christmas we are met with the familiar lights of the festive season. We exit the Lisbon airport and wind our way the 40 or so minutes through the hilly countryside to Sintra. Praia Grande to be more specific. I am going to spend this holiday relaxing on the coast of Portugal.
Why? Well to begin with I have never been and I am eager to explore the narrow and winding roads of this new place, to learn their history, to appreciate their vistas, and of course to eat their fantastic seafood. My stay in Sintra offered me a new appreciation for one of my passions. Most places I go I look forward to the museums and historical sites but I found a new appreciation for the history in the very contemporary back roads and alleys of Sintra.
Waking up the next morning there is a bit of chill in the air and the sky is cloudy but it doesn’t really bother us. Lying in bed I can hear the sounds of waves crashing on the shore below us; this is perfect. The sun is up long before I am and it is spreading its warmth over the Iberian peninsula. Turns out that my Canadian jacket was overkill for this setting; remind me to check the weather forecast next trip.
Sintra is nestled on the hillside of Pena National Park home to a few historic monuments and a forest excellent for hiking. A few minutes more of winding along the twisting roads and you find yourself on the coast of Portugal. Dotted with small towns and fishing villages. The area around Sintra has been occupied in some manner for thousands of years. There are traces of Bronze Age settlements, remains of left behind by Romans and remnants of the Medieval ruins still evident along the ridge face of the mountain from miles away.
This is the sort of thing I love on my travels. The opportunity to wander through a 18th century Palace, still beautifully maintained and vibrant with colour. Or even climbing what remains of a Medieval castle, its steep stairs offering me a challenge even unencumbered with armor or weapons. I conjure to mind the people that could have stood in these spots and seen these vistas and my history classes come alive.
The current town and its neighboring villages are quiet. Not just because it is off-season here in Portugal but also because it is very evident that the population is in decline. The center of town is full of life, restaurants, shops and the trappings of life in general but outside of that, we find many buildings left derelict. Falling apart from years of neglect.
Down small alleyways you can find stunning graffiti lining the walls, bright colours and intricate details is the most attention some of these walls have seen in a while. You also find bricked up windows, sunken rooftops, and decaying walls. The tiles Portugal is known for cracked and coming away from their walls. Driving the roads around the coast we find many similar examples; buildings abandoned, in between others still in use.
Portugal is one of the poorer nations in Europe which, combined with its stunning beaches, is why it is such a popular vacation spot for other Europeans. The abandoned buildings scattered in towns and the countryside alike are a sad reminder of the state of Portugal’s economy. They are also however hauntingly beautiful. Nature reclaiming its space and enveloping the stone and tile with ease. As a historian, there is a third dimension to them.
Passing them I couldn’t help but think of archaeological sites that I have visited. It is interesting to see the tiles coming loose, beams rotting and giving way while there is still activity all around. Forgotten and left to fall into ruins. Perhaps one day to be rebuilt for the curiosity of people like me.
Looking at it through the lens of history, centuries removed, it almost seems binary. One day there is life and the next there is none. This is really only the case in relatively few exceptional examples. It is hard to imagine towns being forgotten but it has happened time and time again and it is often a slow process.
This area has a long history and it is not hard to understand why; the stunning, vistas (Yes people have always cared about that sort of thing) there are clear views of the surrounding countryside for miles, easy access to the coast, and fertile ground. Here is the beauty in these dilapidated structures. They are not symbols of loss, they are fascinating evidence of change.
People have been coming and going in ebbs and flows and will likely continue to do so. This was once the home of Romans, Moorish troops, Portuguese nobility, and much more. I can’t say for sure these homes will make fascinating windows into another time, or be lost to the overgrowth, natural or human, but in this time they captivate me, remind me that history is not static.