Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Oldest Ally, Lost Twin

On the edge of the continent of Europe is a small country that once had a massive empire, including large parts of the American continent. It was so powerful that its monarchs called themselves Emperors, not just kings and queens. It was a maritime nation that produced great explorers and navigators. The patron saint of this country is Saint George. 



Its capital is a city whose name begins with L, has six letters and ends in O, N. It stands on a river whose name begins with T and ends with S. It is a port and was built on an appropriately grand scale for the capital of a global empire. Nowadays its sprawling suburbs are noticeably cosmopolitan, as so many immigrants from the former colonies have come to settle there. 
In the streets you can post letters in scarlet pillar-boxes, each one adorned with a crown. It sets its clocks to Greenwich Mean Time in the winter and British Summer Time in the summer. 
This proud little country was attacked by Napoleon but resisted and repelled all attempts at invasion. Unlike France and Spain it has no Salic law and has often been ruled by a woman. In the nineteenth century it was ruled by a young Queen who married a German prince of the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. 
There were once a lot of monasteries in this country but they were all suppressed by a royal decree. In its mountainous, northern area people play the bagpipes.



A relative late-comer in the European Union, this small country with a big past is now suffering economic depression, has overwhelming debts, and is finding that "austerity" is a nasty medicine that does not even seem to work. The government is imposing severe cuts on pensions, and all public services. There is high unemployment, and prominent political voices are calling for the country to leave the euro-zone and return to its old currency, the escudo. 

I am talking, of course, about Portugal. Its capital, Lisbon, stands on the river Tagus, whose estuary is the perfect sheltering spot for large seagoing vessels. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it was, like England, a great maritime nation. Its colonies included the massive area of Brazil, and its royal family assumed the title of Emperors of Brazil. It was allied with Britain against Napoleon, and in the nineteenth century its Queen Maria II married Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg, a cousin of England's Prince Consort, Albert. The Dissolution of the Monasteries took place in Portugal in 1834. Saint George has always been Portugal's national patron Saint. There are no rules against saints moonlighting, and anyway these days St George in England has a zero-hours contract.


And the Portuguese time-zone, of Western Europe, is no different from that of Britain. If you fly to France or Holland, you have to adjust your watch, but not if you go to Portugal. 

When Portugal lost its empire, it had to find itself a new role and a new identity in the world. When I went there last month there were many signs in the capital of discontent and political controversy. Marches, demonstrations and banners all made it clear that Portugal has an opposition party that is getting increasingly vociferous.
 Another very British thing I noticed about Portugal  - inside its cathedrals you find none of the ostentation and gaudiness of a Spanish or Italian church. Magnificent on the outside, they are often restrained and chaste inside like an Anglican cathedral. 



In Rossio Square the statue of King Pedro IV stands on top of a tall column, surrounded by fountains, and behind it is the grand classical facade of the opera house, all very reminiscent of Trafalgar Square.



Praça de D. Pedro IV.jpg

A few miles along the estuary from Lisbon is the monastery of San Jeronimo at Belem. Built with the wealth of Portugal's empire in a late Gothic, early Renaissance blend of styles they call Manueline, it has a magnificent church and cloister that reminds one of Christ Church in Oxford and King's College, Cambridge, built at around the same period. 




What a wonderful college it would make now! Surely there must be a better use for it than just to shunt tourists around it. 


But perhaps one day it will be used as a monastery again. Who knows what the future of Europe may hold?



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