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Country of the Week: Portugal

In Countries by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

This week we’re back in Europe but we’ve traded the green hills of Ireland for sunny Portugal. The Portuguese Republic, as it’s officially known, has a rich history of exploration and colonization around the world. Today, it’s focused on its own borders and the European community.

  • Capital (and Largest City): Lisbon
  • Population (2014): 10,427,301 (83rd)
  • Total Area: 92,212 km² (111th)
  • Official Language: Portuguese
  • Currency: Euro (€) (EUR)
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Belém Tower in Lisbon – an example of the Portuguese Manueline architectural style

History

Some of the earliest known settlers in what’s now Portugal were various Celtic tribes. The tribes intermarried with the local populations throughout the first millennia BC but Portugal would begin to change forever when the Romans invaded in 219 BC. The conquest wasn’t easy however. Nearly 200 years of war against the Lusitanians and other peoples took its toll on the Roman legions. Eventually, in the year 27 BC, Lusitania became a Roman province – in addition to other territories to the north.

Unfortunately for Rome, Germanic tribes (particularly the Suebi and the Vandals) would claim Portugal and the Iberian Peninsula years later. For the next 300 years the Visigoths held sway in the region, until yet another conquering force arrived in the eighth century – the Umayyad Caliphate. Though Muslim rule in Moorish Iberia would eventually be usurped, Arabic and Islamic traditions would have a lasting impact on the region, and even the Portuguese language.

The Christian Reconquista by descendants of the Visigoths would eventually lead to an independent Portugal. The Battle of Ourique in 1139 is often seen as the birth of the kingdom. Throughout the late Middle Ages – despite the setback of the Black Death devastating much of the population – Portugal grew in stature and wealth, navigating the treacherous world of European politics and alliances. In 1373, Portugal signed an alliance with England, which lasts to this day – the longest standing in the world.

The ensuing period of discovery and colonization brought Portugal into a race against other European countries to amass power and territory. With territories in Africa, the Americas, and Asia, Portugal had developed an international Empire. However, it would begin to wane, especially after the loss of major colonies. The War of Independence of Brazil (from 1822-1824) would put an end to Portuguese influence in the Americas. The Empire would last in some form until 1999 (with the handover of Macau) or 2002 (East Timor being granted sovereignty).

Before that however, Portugal had to survive the 20th century. The Revolution of October 5, 1910 brought an end to the monarchy and ushered in republicanism. A tumultuous period of instability and unrest would lead to a coup d’état on May 28, 1926 – resulting in a right-wing dictatorship called Estado Novo, led by António de Oliveira Salazar, taking power in 1933. Salazar kept Portugal neutral during WWII, largely avoiding the fascist stigma of Hitler or Mussolini. His legacy is debated today, particularly economically, with some saying he presided over economic stagnation while other scholars argue he helped foster economic growth after the turmoil that preceded his rule.

After Salazar’s death in 1970, Portugal began to integrate more readily with the rest of Europe. Decolonization and liberalization characterized this period as the last remnants of the overseas Empire were relinquished. Today Portugal is an active member of the EU, though their economic problems necessitated a bailout in 2011. Despite this, Portugal still stands today, looking to the future as well as celebrating a long and proud history.

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The city of Porto from across the Douro River

Culture

Portuguese culture is influenced by a long history of conquest and reconquest. Celtic, Roman, Germanic, and Moorish settlements have all had a lasting impact on the region. This, coupled with a legacy of discovery in the 15th and 16th century, has resulted in Portuguese traditions and culture that are both unique and diverse.

Today, Portuguese folklore is celebrated throughout the country. Traditional dance, festivals, and more are commonplace, particularly in the rural areas. Musical traditions developed in the 15th century have also survived to this day.

The cities of Portugal feature artistic works of international renown – both modern and classical. Cinema and other performances are also common, with entertainment venues found in almost every locale. Another constant throughout the country is the café culture, similar the other Mediterranean countries like France or Italy.

Sport, like most European countries, also holds a strong place in citizens’ hearts. The most popular, again like most European countries, is soccer. Domestic teams have found success on the European stage while the national team has come close to winning major competitions while featuring some of the best players in the world. Like neighbouring Spain, bullrings are found throughout the country, though enthusiasm for the sport varies between regions.

Geography

Due to its prime location in southwestern Europe, along both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, Portugal enjoys a very agreeable climate. There are mountains where the temperature does become very cold, however the bulk of the country is very pleasant, warm, and sunny. Many beaches can be found throughout the south, offering an idyllic retreat for locals and tourists alike.

Though the days of colonies are long gone, Portugal does still control the archipelagos known as the Azores and Madeira in the Atlantic. Mount Pico (located on the island of Pico in the Azores) is the highest point in Portugal – a stunning volcano that towers over the surrounding countryside.

The cities of Portugal all have good infrastructure, historical importance, and a bevy of entertainment. Lisbon has the warmest winters of any European metropolis and is a hugely important port and trading centre. The second city Porto is one of Europe’s oldest. It’s also perhaps most famous for port, a fortified wine that is enjoyed throughout the world.

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The Douro River and Vineyards – west of Porto

Did you know?

  • In 1494, Portugal effectively controlled half the ‘New World’
  • Portuguese is the official language of 9 countries – Brazil is the largest
  • 70% of the world’s corks are made in Portugal
  • In 1755, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake destroyed almost all of Lisbon
  • The longest bridge in Europe is located in Lisbon – The Vasco da Gama Bridge (17km)
  • Portugal is staunchly Roman Catholic and is one of the more socially conservative countries in Europe
  • Slavery was abolished in Portugal in 1761 – before any other colonial power
  • Portugal offers some of the best surfing in the world
  • Ferdinand Magellan, famous for circumnavigating the world, was Portuguese though his expedition was funded by the Spanish
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Portuguese egg tarts – a traditional custard pastry

Last Word

Though Portugal is no longer the global power it once was, it has found a place for itself on both the European and world stage. The country has worked hard to weather the economic storm that followed the global crisis and preserve its way of life in the years to come.

Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems. Also, check out our Currency Spotlight on the euro for more info on the pan-European currency and eurozone economy as a whole.

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