Well-known Afrikaans novelist and journalist Jaco Kirsten recently launched a runaway success of a website, meneer.tv, which reports on bar-fighting skills, hot chicks and hang-over cures, as well as a number of less profound topics. According to Jaco, also a magazine editor and media expert, internet posts in the form of naming a “list of” attracts three times more “hits” than chunks of dense prose.
I don’t really care about the hits, but after a visit to the land of fado, Dias and the hairy arm-pit, Jaco’s profound insight does give me an opportunity of listing 10 Reasons to Love Portugal.
- People: The Portuguese are the friendliest, warmest and funniest people in Europe. The only thing they like more than eating, drinking, laughing and talking is inviting complete strangers to eat, drink, laugh and talk with them. This unpretentious and heartfelt hospitality is possibly the result of each family’s roots being embedded somewhere between a rural farm, a tavern or an oceanic activity such as fishing, mussel farming or piracy. What you see is what you get with these charming and spirited folk, and it spills over into their service industry which is the friendliest and most efficient on earth. Everyone likes the Portuguese, except the Spanish who are still pissed off that their small neighbour makes better wine and has a far superior cuisine than the paella-peckers do.
- Communication: Portuguese kids have to learn English from the age of six, so most adults have a good command of the language. Not only does this enable them to understand the sophisticated lyrics of Justine Bieber and to order a Big Mac with Extra Olives, but it means that the visitor to their country is always a sardine bone’s length from someone who is happy to be of assistance. Some isolated rural areas, however, are inhabited by elderly Portuguese-only speaking folk, but also here you will be received with a smile, an “ola” and a slap on the back – even after trying to tell an old lady you just drove over her grandson.
- Wine: These people love their vinho and annual per capita consumption is a healthy 45 litres. The local vinho verde is deliciously refreshing and bright. And with an alcohol level of only 10% you can drink three bottles at lunch without offering to shave the waitress, claiming Cristiano Ronaldo is gay or dry-hump a suckling pig. The red wines are expressive and actually do taste and smell of things wine writers like bandying about, like berries, fig paste, tar, spices and deconstructed chorizo filling. And the Douro Valley is the most beautiful wine region on earth.
- Roads: Driving in Portugal is pure pleasure as you are usually the only person on the freeway due to the proliferation of road-building that took place courtesy of generous EU subsidies. You can thus get from Lisbon to Oporto in three hours flat without arriving in a nervous bitter sweat or a windscreen filled with unidentifiable specimens of bodily fluids thrown by irate foreigners, even if you were driving on the wrong side of the road the whole way.
- Seafood: The only reason the Japanese started making sushi was because they can’t cook fish as good as the Portuguese can. Not only fish such as grouper, sea-bass, swordfish and tuna, but also any creature that chooses to live in the ocean. Barnacles, clams, urchins, sea-snails, crabs and weird looking prawny-thingies are eaten with abandon and relish by a nation presumably immune to iodine poising and salmonella.
- Fado: This is Portugal’s national music, besides the horns the beach-kids blow to announce the arrival of the season’s first sardines. Fado involves a man or a woman – always dressed in black – singing heartfelt lyrics to the odd guitar strumming along to accompany said singer. Emotion is the key, the fado singer holding back his or her tears as they painfully – yet musically – sing of some great tragedy, such as the time Mamma could not find the garlic with which to cook the octopus, Pappa having needed the garlic to rub on the soles of his Grandma who is suffering from bronchitis in the hill sides north of Braga, but also likes to eat octopus. This is heavy stuff, and although you do not understand a word one usually has to choke back the tears, and when the fado singer takes out the ubiquitous handkerchief, the sluices open as you bawl into your caldo verde.
- Tiled buildings: The expressively tiled houses and other buildings are refreshingly exuberant on the eye. Portugal is about colour, and the pink, blue, green and mauve tiles adorning the buildings all over the country reflect the lively energetic spirit of the people. These tileshunting opportunities as it is far more rewarding to pry a genuine 15th century tile from an old house than to buy a Made in China knock-off at one of the souvenir shops.
- Angolan and Mozambican brothers: These former Portuguese colonies spew a large number of African immigrants in the direction of the Motherland, and any South African looking for peri-peri in Portugal will have to seek out the joints where the Angolans and Mozambicans hang-out. Of course, many of said immigrants tend to bide their time with dubious activities such as pick-pocketing, drug-dealing, stabbing, spreading STD’s and selling counterfeit Ronaldo soccer jerseys. But many of them run vibey clubs in Lisbon and Oporto where some of the best African music is heard. Here South Africans who participated in the Border War will usually find an Angolan or Mozambican veteran, the meeting of which leads to emotional hugs when erstwhile enemies are reunited over a table filled with prawns and Sagres beer. Overcome with emotion at meeting someone you shot at in the war, you don’t even mind that much when you later find out that your wallet has been stolen.
- Beaches: The west coast of Portugal is on the Atlantic and the south on the Mediterranean, and both provide mile-upon-mile of powder-white beaches. These great beaches make for some serious rest-and-recreation, as well as spurts of adventure. The biggest waves in the world can be surfed at Nazare on the west coast, while fending off the drug-gangs on the beaches of the Algarve provides for an equally adrenaline-charged experience. But if you want to fall out of the cusp of society and evolve to homo sapiens beachus bummes, Portugal is your place.
- Oporto: A great slice of bohemian, sophisticated, sun-drenched, rain-swept, fishy, foody, boozy, dilapidated, stylish slice of life on the banks of the river Douro and on the ear of the Atlantic. Great food. Pulsating nightlife. Culture and art. Buzzing narrow cobblestone streets. And of course the heart of the Port industry, O Port, the Elvis Presley of Wine how I love thee.