If you grow up in the shadow of a perfectly circular Moorish fortress, can you ever truly leave?
Portugal is the narrow sliver of an empire standing watch on the edge of Western Civilization and the End of the World. When the Romans invaded, conquering Celtic lands, one river they reached, Rio Lima, was so wide, they could not see the other side. The soldiers were convinced it was the river Lethe, and the underworld was on the opposite bank. It took the general, crossing on his own, calling each soldier individually by name, to convince the army to follow.
Never mind that Portugal was actually a gateway out of the cradle of civilization for our species. In addition to making a home for several early hominid species simultaneously, our earliest consistent expressions of art are found there. End of the world, indeed.
From this littoral frontier launched armadas of half-crazed sailors, perhaps not unlike the Greeks in their skillfulness, to explore the unknown in search of riches. They were the first Europeans to circumnavigate the globe. Sitting on the shores of Lisbon today, watching recreational boats sail in and out of the straits, the baseline skills of the average sailor are still quite remarkable. It must be a point of pride for this tiny nation, who turned outward for power instead of inward.
And so it is that we find ourselves looking at farm real estate in the most interior of the interior of the country. You get the sense from Portugal’s history that its riches were predicated first on a counter-alliance with the British against Spain, then on the plundering resulting from its discoveries and exploration. Portugal does not seem to have grown rich from the tax base of its villages, unlike other European countries. While fealty certainly played a role, geography and geopolitics suggest instead that villages provided young men to crew tall ships to conquer the world and bring back gold, enriching the court.
Perhaps the persisting microeconomies in the countryside are leading people to leave again in times of economic crisis. The Portuguese have regularly been a migrant population in Europe, from the exodus of Jews to the South of France during the Inquisition, to the population of countries like Brazil, to the ports of Los Angeles, the whalers of Monterey, and the widespread housekeeping enterprises we see today in more prosperous Western European countries. From Portugal, people flee. And now, with an aging population, declining birth rate, and urbanization resulting from an infusion of tech investment, quintas stand empty.
The quintas in the countryside run along Roman roads, atop early Celtic settlements, the vestiges of which still remain with large vertical rocks popping up in the most unexpected places. The Roman roads today take you to the pilgrimage sites of Compostela and Fatima, or to the bakery, which in all likelihood is two villages over because the baker retired two years ago.
I don’t like the idea of repopulating an emptying countryside with foreigners bent on idyllic exploitation of another culture. But with the Portuguese being such enterprising expatriates themselves, it cuts the guilt a bit. In my family alone, we have a significant amount of inexplicable Iberian heritage, and a mystery birth out of wedlock. That isn’t to say that we have Portuguese heritage, specifically, but I let my mind wander when I was there.
I felt my grandfather walking the Roman road through the vineyards, and in the vegetable garden surrounded by fruit trees and chickens in sandy Alentejo. Standing on the edge of Belem, watching the sailboats tack against the wind to head out into the open Atlantic, I imagined my potential forefather fleeing a village to face the sea for the first time, then running rampant through North America. Was he afraid of the constant surf? Why was he so restless? Did he think about his mother when he got to America? How and why did he leave steady work on the docks for such a pastoral inland area? What made him, in a distinct possibility given what we know, a terrible human? Would his mother have accepted my great grandfather as her grandson if she knew? Would we be Portuguese today?
Home, a sense of place. That is what drew me to the desert and began to unravel decades of shoulds. What should home be? What should travel be? Don’t be surprised if I go back to discover more of Portugal, as a piece of my own home puzzle.