Postcard from Portugal


It’s a long time since Portugal was a great maritime power, with a diverse and resource-rich empire ranging from Brazil to Goa, from Macau to Angola, and including the small territory just north of Australia now known as East Timor.

Lisbon, as a former imperial capital, is not wearing well. Not nearly as well, for example, as the capital of the former Austro–Hungarian empire, Vienna, which these days is all glitz and expensive charm, seductive service and immaculately maintained imperial heritage. In Lisbon, the word that most often springs to mind is ‘decay’.

The Portuguese got rid of their royals in 1910; the Austrians at the end of World War I, so length of time as a republic is not the explanation for the striking difference in circumstances in 2005. The old buildings of Lisbon have charm and style but are falling down literally. Around the old town you trip over construction sites, or deconstruction sites, continually. More buildings are being demolished than restored, although immediately outside of the old city, forests of charmless new Meriton-style high rise towers spring up as you watch.

Looking for signs of what made Portugal the naval superpower of the 15th and 16th centuries, you arrive at the Atlantic. A nation that had the knowledge and skills to navigate that ocean was bound to experience greatness. As you drive from Lisbon along the coast to Sintra, the ancient summer capital of the Portuguese kings, you see the full fierceness of the Atlantic. The coast is dotted with 16th century fortresses, quite small to the 21st century gaze, but apparently effective in deterring pirates and other foes. The ragged, crumbling coastal cliffs, still terrifically hazardous, would have destroyed more potential invaders than the actual forts.

Like all great nations, Portugal based its performance on a great university (John Howard, please note). The university at Coimbra, 150 kilometres from Lisbon, is one of the world’s oldest. Built high on a hill on the foundations of a 9th century Moorish fortress, it is still splendid. The library, preserved in early baroque grandeur, rivals Trinity’s for beauty and scope. This university was opened in the 12th century and well established by the 16th, when Portuguese navigators were discovering the world, including Australia.

I wonder what would have happened if they had not only charted Australia but colonised it as well. Would we have had our first university in the 16th century instead of the middle of the 19th? Would the Howard Government have treated it with any more respect?

Of course, Portugal today is not without power. Australians were surprised and embarrassed when, just a few years ago, Portugal beat Australia to a seat on the Security Council of the United Nations. I was amazed, and concerned, when the new administration in independent East Timor decided that Portuguese would be the official language of instruction, including in universities, in preference to English, Tetum or Indonesian. And former Portuguese Prime Minister, José Manuel Barroso, is now President of the European Commission. He was most recently seen upstaging current EU President Tony Blair at last week’s European strategy meeting at Hampton Court.

Current Portuguese politics are democratic and lively, as befits a country that last century suffered 36 years of repression and tyranny under the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar. We nearly met Mario Soares, a former Socialist Prime Minister (1976–78 and 1983–85) and President (1986–96). We were drawn outside our central Lisbon hotel by a massive and thrilling drum roll. Two teams of young drummers clad in red, one high on the terrace, the other at street level, carried out a lengthy, vigorous and inventive drum dialogue as the crowds gathered. Finally, amid a tangle of TV cameras and agitated newshounds, the VIPs arrived, including the former President himself, looking very old but relaxed. Many long speeches followed, all open to the public with no obvious security.

Gender politics? The Act that gave Portuguese women the vote was only passed in 1975, but shortly afterwards Portugal had a female Prime Minister, Maria de Lourdes Pintassilgo (1979–1980).

Consequences? Old Lisboan men, as in other Latin countries, populate cafes all day, talking, smoking, drinking coffee. Old local women do not sit in cafes, but struggle along the cobbled streets with bags of groceries, looking harried. On every block you find shops selling stylish male clothes. There are not so many classy clothes shops for females, but many lingerie shops, called ‘Initimissima’. They are everywhere, so their stock of tiny spangled bras, thongs and mini knickers must find local customers.

Well, at least women are now allowed to sing the Fado, the old bar songs about loss and heartbreak …

Finally, Lisbon presents as a successful multicultural city. Africans, often in Islamic dress, are everywhere, and apparently in all jobs, at all levels. While the shoe shine business is a sign of poverty, it was encouraging to see, as we did, an old African having his shoes shined in the street by a younger white man.

Portugal had greatness a long time ago. Now it seems to offer a future for all its citizens, including immigrants from its former colonies. Maybe cultural tolerance will work for 21st century Portugal like maritime skills did in the past.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.