National Geographic : 1948 Nov
Portugal Is Different BY CLEMENT E. CONGER OUR powerful Constellation, inbound from America, sailed serenely over the white Tower of Belem, standing on the bank of the River Tagus. Far below us tiny sailing vessels, with strangely upturned bows and lateen sails, tacked across the stream (page 602). They brought to mind the great discoverers who set forth from this same harbor. Graceful as an eagle, our plane set down on Lisbon's new Portela de Sacavem Airport. My taxi driver raced across the several miles from the airport to central Lisbon (page 603). Swiftly leaving the country behind, we flashed by the bull ring and in a moment were squirming through narrow, winding streets full of cars and horse carts. Pedes trians, many carrying loads on their heads, walked in streets as much as on sidewalks. Other taxis missed each other by the pro verbial coat of paint. Streetcars rang warn ing bells, but cabbies paid no heed. We dashed up hills, rounded curves, and careened across intersections with horn wide open. Arriving safe but breathless at my hotel, I knew how Sir Malcolm Campbell, the dare devil racing driver, felt when reporters asked his first impression of Lisbon (Lisboa). Re flecting on his taxi ride from airport to hotel, he is quoted, "I've never been so scared in all my life!" Lisbon's hotels, like those in all major cities, are likely to be crowded, but they are pleasant and inexpensive. Lisbon, a Medley of Colors and Noises Portugal's capital is as colorful as it is noisy.* Each building is a different pastel shade-pink, blue, green, or yellow. Brilliant flowers garnish walls and lawns. In their way, most of the city's 800,000 people are equally colorful. Women carry all manner of things on their heads-boxes, bas kets, furniture, mattresses, even desks, but mostly fish. Lisbon calls its statuesque fishwives varinas. They take their name from Ovar, the coastal town from which they came. Varinas form a tight society of their own. In their veins flows Phoenician blood. By the thousands they peddle fish from door to door on flat, head-borne trays (pages 584, 608 and 609). Frequently you will find a pair of tired looking shoes resting on a fish tray. Barefoot varinas carry shoes, as Englishmen carry umbrellas, for emergency use. If a policeman reprimands one for breaking the ordinance against bare feet, she makes swift amends. Her shoes lie within easy reach; quickly she slips them on if needed. Once the law is out of sight, she replaces shoes on fish, and com fortable bare toes grip mosaic sidewalks once more. Shrill and persistent are the fishwives' sales cries, and not unmixed with vituperation. Other peddlers are just as noisy. Here and there roosters and hens add their cackle to the din. In World War II, Lisbonese began raising chickens with a vengeance. War changed the face of neutral Portugal but little. Neither Axis nor Allies cared to overrun the country, whose 8,000,000 in habitants and Maine-size area offered few serious obstacles (map, page 587). Lisbon became the warring world's cross roads for the exchange of mail and informa tion. Spies moved in by the score. Portu guese financial houses supplied native cur rencies to equip Allied secret agents dropped into enemy-held countries.f Meanwhile the Government, having a Brit ish alliance dating from 1373, made the Azores available as anti-U-boat bases.: Exit Spies, Enter Tourists Today the aura of international intrigue is gone; the Portuguese are their smiling, friendly, uninhibited selves. They are the delight of travelers who appreciate old customs, character quirks, and costume dress. Phoenicians came trading to Lisbon more than 2,000 years ago. Nowhere did they plant their heritage more enduringly. Sailboats of Phoenician design still ply the Tagus (Tejo) River by the thousands. Opening up from the river front is the spacious Praca do Commercio, known for two centuries as "Black Horse Square" because of an equestrian statue of King Jose I. * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, "Lisbon, the City of the Friendly Bay," by Clifford Albion Tinker, November, 1922, and "Castles and Progress in Portugal," by W. Robert Moore, Feb ruary, 1938. t See "Lisbon-Gateway to Warring Europe," by Harvey Klemmer, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, August, 1941. $ See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "American Airmen in the Azores," 10 ills. in color, February, 1946; "European Outpost: the Azores," by Harriet Chalmers Adams, January, 1935; and "New Map of the Atlantic Ocean," by Leo A. Borah and Wellman Chamberlin, September, 1941.