We’ve not made it a secret on this blog that both of us like castles. I don’t know if that’s because there are virtually none in our home country or if it’s because they evoke a sense of adventure: knights and dragons and damsels in distress. Or maybe they’re just the tactile evidence that European history predates American history by thousands of years. When visiting a castle, we stand on its battlement and ponder the hundreds and thousands of people who constructed it and walked upon its stones and spilled blood on them, or maybe just ketchup.
Virtually every time we take the road into Sesimbra I’ll look up upon the hill where the castle to the right sits and marvel at it. Ten years from now will I do the same thing? I don’t know… I suppose the fascination might wear off over time. But in the meantime, I receive a rush of genuine delight every time I simply drive into town. How cool is that?
The US, with its political, social, and geographic isolation, tends to raise generations of people who sort of think world history started in 1776. But Portugal, for example, has a history that goes back over 600 years before that: it emerged as a country in 1143. And that’s just the formation of the country. Recorded history in Europe goes back thousands of years. Humanity has left legacies scattered about the countryside, all begging to be learned about and explored.
While we were in Ireland, we visited Newgrange, which is a prehistoric monument that predates the Egyptian pyramids. Everywhere we go in Europe, we see old stuff, including castles, forts, old cathedrals, and ruins. Recently we were wandering the streets of Alfama in Lisbon and accidentally stumbled across some Roman amphitheater ruins. There was no charge to see them, and while it was well cared for, it was all tucked away, a little bit out of sight/out of mind. These are Roman ruins, people! They’re awesome! I’d pay ten euros to see them even while I complained about being charged ten euros for seeing them!
In Rome they have bridges and water fountains that are still being used thousands of years after their initial construction. If Rome hadn’t fallen, you’d probably be reading this on your holographic device while flying to work having news downloaded directly into your brain about the latest troubles on Mars.
Much of Lisbon’s charm is that it’s an old city, and as a result, has tons of character. That said, I’ve learned over time to avoid hotels that tout their historic nature. “Historic” usually means “rooms that might be a bit too small for Hobbits.” I once stayed in a historic hotel where the bathroom was no bigger than a broom closet. I brushed my teeth with one foot in the toilet. And it wasn’t cheap!
However, a historic city is another matter. Admittedly, I wouldn’t want to commute every day through some of Lisbon’s narrowest windy streets. They weren’t designed for cars, because cars didn’t exist when they were designed. I’ve heard multiple complaints about how common it is to find your parked car with your mirrors busted off by passing cars. Most cars in Europe have side view mirrors that can be tucked in a bit, and you’re well advised to do so when parking on some of these narrow streets. But even then, it might not be enough.
But when you’re a visitor, taking in all the amazing history of the place, it’s all charming and delightful. Except when you’re walking on one of those streets and a car comes barreling toward you, oblivious to the proximity of the other cars mirrors and your presence on the street. We’ve found ourselves hugging the walls more than once, sucking in our guts, as a car trundles by.
So while Portugal is our launchpad to see much more of history throughout Europe, the country itself has a rich, storied history worth knowing and exploring.
Bring on the castles!